Is a Seal of Biliteracy Enough to Empower Language-Minoritized Students?

In recent years there has been a trend for states to pass a Seal of Biliteracy. A raciolinguistic approach to analyzing the effects of the Seal of Biliteracy needs to account for the racial disparities that currently exist between white English speakers and language-minoritized students of color. In this guest blog post, Owen Silverman Andrews , an educator and activist working in Baltimore, offers such a raciolinguistic approach to his advocacy work related to the Maryland Seal of Biliteracy. I encourage all of you to both support Owen in his efforts to reshape the Maryland policies to be more racially equitable while also applying the lessons learned from his experiences in your own communities.

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Twenty-two of the United States and the District of Columbia have approved some form of a biliteracy seal to add to the diplomas of graduating high school seniors who are proficient in more than one language. The states that have approved a seal of biliteracy cut across many of the traditional dividing lines of U.S. culture and politics, including: California and Texas, New York and Georgia, Minnesota and Louisiana, Washington state and Utah. Five more state legislatures or boards of education are considering similar measures, and six more are in the “early stages” of adoption.

In seemingly stark contrast to the “language wars” in U.S. schools in the 1980s and 90s—when English only ballot measures passed in California and elsewhere and few were predicting the growing, if contested, power of Latinxs and immigrants in this country—celebrations of multilingualism have become seemingly more mainstreaming. This mainstreaming of multilingualism poses significant questions for multilinguals from oppressed communities and their allies, most pointedly: How do we move beyond seals of approval to shifting power and resources to language and dialect minoritized learners in U.S. schools?

This is a question that I have been grappling with in my advocacy work in Maryland, where I live and work with immigrants acquiring English. The General Assembly passed The Maryland Seal of Biliteracy Act and it was signed into law April 26, 2016. The Bill’s language assigned responsibility for defining biliteracy and the implementation process to the State Department of Education, and included a provision that allows county school boards to opt in or out. The State Department of Education held hearings on August 23rd. I was the only non-suit in the hearing room of the Maryland Board of Education Hearing Room.

I will save you the play by play. Suffice it to say that the definition, assessment, and access points currently being pushed by Susan Spinnato and others within the Maryland Department of Education will serve to pad the transcripts of English L1 learners in high performing schools located in wealth school districts who receive a 4 or a 5 on their foreign language AP exams. Learners whose L1 is not English will have to go to unspecified private testing institutions outside the school system to have their native language proficiency assessed at Intermediate High or higher based on ACTFEL standards to receive the same seal that their English L1 peers can obtain much more easily. In short, as it stands, Maryland’s proposed Seal of Biliteracy will reinforce education inequality along lines of wealth and language, which are often correlated to race and country of origin.

For the next month, the Board of Education will receive and review feedback from the public on the Seal’s enabling regulation. After that, it’s set in stone (for the medium-term, at least). Learner, ELL, and immigrant activists and their allies must move swiftly and bring considerable pressure to bear on the Board—particularly Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s newly minted Superintendent, Dr. Salmon—to pressure board members to revise the Seal regulation with ELL equity, access, and empowerment in mind. When contacting the Board (email susan.spinnato@maryland.gov, cc Charlene.necessary@maryland.gov, and bcc owen.s.andrews(at)gmail.com), several demands should be included (please post your letters to the Board in the comments section below):

  • English Language Learners should have access to the same in-school, curriculum-based assessment (e.g. AP tests without having to take the AP class in their LQ) to qualify for the Seal of Biliteracy as their English L1 peers.
  • The AP exam, which is much more accessible in high-performing schools in wealthy school districts with predominantly White and English L1 learners, should not be the sole means of assessment.
  • The standard should be adjusted from ACTFEL’s Intermediate-High to Intermediate-Low, which is the standard in some of the other states that have offer the Seal of Biliteracy.
  • A learner with six or more years of education in a school where a language other than English is the primary language of instruction should automatically qualify for the seal if their English is proficient enough for them to graduate from a Maryland high school.

Shifting power and resources to language- and dialect-minoritized learners in U.S. public schools begins at the grassroots, with the classroom conditions we teachers create with our learners. However, if state bureaucrats are actively working to thwart this shift by reinforcing inequity through policies like Maryland’s proposed Seal of Biliteracy regulation, we need to push back. Please take action today! Email Susan Spinnato and Charlene Necessary and call Superintendent Salmon at (410) 767-0462!

Given that implementation of some form of a biliteracy seal is now becoming the norm, rather than a cause at the vanguard of the language justice and immigrants’ rights movements, it is time to focus on next steps that empower and shift resources to the communities than a dissection of the legislative process.  The question that we must consider moving forward is how to move beyond seals of approval toward shifting power and resources to language and dialect minoritized learners in U.S. schools.

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