Aaron Loewenberg highlights some of the ways Head Start is adapting to serve young dual language learners across the country
It is no secret that the U.S. is undergoing a demographic shift. Students of color are now a majority of kindergarten students and are projected by the Census Bureau to be a majority of all children by 2020. The Census Bureau also estimates that no one racial group will be a majority of the country by 2044.
These demographic shifts are evident in Head Start, the federal program that promotes school readiness for children from low-income families from birth to age five. In 2017, Hispanic/Latino children represented 37% of total Head Start enrollment, up from 19% in 1980. The program has also seen an increase in the number of children who are classified as dual language learners (DLLs), meaning they have a primary home language other than English. The percentage of DLLs entering Head Start has increased from 17% in 2000 to 24% in 2014. These students speak a combined total of over 140 languages and are enrolled in 87% of all Head Start programs. Almost all (96%) of these students were born in the U.S., but over three-quarters are in families in which both parents were born in another country.
While high-quality early education, such as that offered by Head Start, matters for all children, studies suggest that DLLs may benefit even more than their peers from participating in these programs. Studies have also found that early-education programs that use dual-immersion models of teaching, as opposed to English-only models, produce favorable cognitive, achievement, and social outcomes for DLLs and their English-speaking peers.
As the share of DLLs enrolled in Head Start continues to increase, programs must work proactively to ensure they are meeting the needs of these children and families. The 2007 reauthorization of Head Start tasked the Department of Health and Human Services with updating the Head Start Performance Standards that all programs must follow. The updated Performance Standards, which went into effect in November 2016, are the first complete reorganization of the standards since they were originally published in 1975 and represent a major step forward in better serving DLL children and their families.
Some of the specific provisions in the standards related to DLLs are unchanged. For example, the standards continue to mandate that at least one class staff member must be fluent in a non-English language if a majority of the children in the class speak that language. In other words, if twelve out of 20 Head Start children in a classroom speak Spanish, programs are required to find an adult to serve in that classroom who also speaks Spanish.
But what is most exciting about the updated standards is that for the first time, the standards mandate that programs “must recognize bilingualism and biliteracy as strengths and implement research-based teaching practices that support their development.” These practices include implementing teaching practices that focus on the development of the home language for infant and toddler DLLs and using teaching practices that focus on both English language acquisition and the continued development of the home language. For the first time, programs are required to assess DLLs.
in the language(s) that best capture their skill levels and must assess language skills in both English and the home language. The standards also mandate that programs develop a comprehensive approach to ensure the full and effective participation of DLL children and their families.
The common thread in the updated standards is the recognition that a child’s home language is an asset that should be cultivated, rather than a hindrance to be overcome in the quest to learn English. Dr. Marlene Zepeda, a DLL early-education expert, praised the fact that strategies for better serving DLLs are incorporated throughout the new standards while moving from a deficit perspective to “a more strength-based approach in a very explicit way.”
The new emphasis on home-language development is supported by a vast amount of research about how to best support the language development of DLLs. For example, studies suggest that strong home-language skills help build skills in English.10 DLLs who are exposed to rich language experiences in their home languages and build strong skills in those languages are more likely to develop strong second-language competencies. For more information about the importance of home-language development, see this joint policy statement from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education.
While the updated standards set out many requirements for programs serving DLLs, the good news is that Head Start offers several resources to help programs.
The Office of Head Start maintains twelve regional offices around the country tasked with providing assistance to local programs. Head Start has also published a DLL toolkit that includes a variety of useful resources, such as research on DLLs and DLL-specific topics for professional development. Additionally, the Office of Head Start has a website full of information about the importance of supporting home-language development. Finally, Head Start recently launched the Dual Language Learners Program Assessment (DLLPA). The DLLPA is meant to help programs identify strengths and areas of improvement for effectively serving dual language learners and their families.
Aaron Loewenberg is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the early and elementary education team, where he provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade. Before joining New America, he taught pre-K and kindergarten for four years in Washington, DC. Loewenberg holds a bachelor’s degree in government and a master’s degree in educational policy and leadership, both from American University. This article is published with the permission of New America (www.newamerica.org).