Where is Bilingualism in the Common Core State Standards?

There has been a great deal of debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and whether this should be the direction that educational reform should follow. At some point in the future I may share some thoughts on the debate. However, here I want to argue that even on its own terms it is not living up to its promise.

The stated mission of the CCSS is to prepare students so that they are “positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” And yet, the Standards ignore the most important skill needed for success in our globalized world—bilingualism. For that matter, most states’ versions of Standards don’t seem to value an important and growing population of students who are already well on their way to having this skill: students who speak a language other than English at home. This lack of attention to bilingualism doesn’t bode well for our country’s future.

It’s no secret that the United States is an unusually monolingual nation. According to the U.S. census, 80% of the U.S. population speaks only English at home. What are the standards going to do to support these students in developing the multilingual and multicultural competencies needed to thrive in our increasingly globalizing world? A steady stream of English-language informational texts and standardized tests aren’t going to cut it.

Similarly, the U.S. Census reports that 20% of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home. The children of these families become bilingual by necessity. These are students who come to school already possessing many of the intercultural communication skills needed for success in facilitating the global exchange of ideas. Yet, their bilingual resources are not embraced by the CCSS.

As a former ESL teacher who does research on bilingual education, I see a beacon of hope emerging in the New York State Bilingual Common Core Initiative, an effort I have consulted on. Unlike the national standards, which provide a 3-page document that vaguely calls for meeting the needs of “English Language Learners,” the New York initiative places bilingualism at its core and argues for the development of bilingualism among all students.

The New York State Bilingual Common Core Initiative is working on New Language Progressions that differentiate each CCSS standard into five levels of language development. This provides tools for both ESL and foreign language teachers to develop curriculum aligned with the CCSS that support their students in their emerging bilingualism. They are also creating Home Language Arts Progressions, which provide a roadmap for bilingual teachers working to develop the home languages of students from bilingual households.

The New York State Bilingual Common Core Initiative should become a model for advocates of CCSS who are interested in taking bilingualism seriously. Other states will no doubt need to modify the initiative to fit their students’ needs. But adopting such a model is an important first step in beginning a national conversation about how we are going to provide our children with the cultural and linguistic knowledge they need to become global citizens.

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