We’re at an unprecedented point of opportunity for education reform in the U.S., but we need to ensure that adopted reforms rejuvenate our systems and make them more flexible to suit the diversity of learners and provide them with the breadth of skills that will be required to succeed in the 21st century.
Pandemic-related school closures have accelerated the adoption and absorption of educational technology, even at schools in high-poverty communities, while revealing its shortcomings. Over the past year, we’ve also seen a boost in public support and respect for educators as parents have experienced firsthand the work that they do. The hiatus of in-person schooling has afforded us the opportunity to question how schools should work.
Budget surpluses in some states, like California, and massive increases in federal education spending mean that funds are available to redesign curricula, train existing educators, and recruit new teachers to respond to systemic reforms.
Particularly from the language educator’s perspective, there is another looming opportunity that should have implications across the board—one-third of the nearly 23 million preschool-age children in the U.S. live with a parent who speaks a language other than English, according to the Migration Policy Unit. Never before have there been so many students in possession of the valuable potential to develop their own bilingualism and share it with their peers.
The neurological benefits of bilingualism are now proven, and most of us accept that languages are an essential skill for the 21st century. Language and cultural studies can also play a huge part in promoting equity and social/emotional learning. So, why not seize this opportunity to infiltrate curricula with language learning?
The most effective reaction would be to multiply the creation of dual language schools and programs across the country, but their creation would likely take too long to take advantage of this influx of emergent bilinguals, so, while we should push ahead with more dual language programs, we should also look at flexible options that can be applied in all schools.
We can prioritize the recruitment of educators with language skills, preferably from the communities within which they will be teaching. We can incentivize educators to develop their own language skills and make provisions for them to share these newly acquired skills. We can make the most of the edtech gains acquired during the pandemic to personalize instruction based on language skills, needs, and interests. We can increase the number of hours allocated to content-based education with bilingual educators.
Fundamentally, we need to reexamine the idea of educating according to subject-based silos and look at a cross-curricular approach in which disciplines are intertwined to enable students to engage, whatever their interests or learning styles. Mixing the language of instruction is key to the success of this approach.
Such change may seem radical, but it will likely be a step that all educational systems need to make to meet the demands of the 21st century. Not so long ago, we changed perceptions by renaming foreign languages world languages. Now that we accept that the U.S. is a reflection of the world and its diversity, we should adapt our educational system to take advantage of this asset and set a shining example.