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The North Star of Leadership

Sonia W. Soltero provides the foundational direction to design and implement effective and sustainable dual language programs

Despite one of the most brutal winter storms on record in Portland, Oregon, which stranded many on roads and airports, US secretary of education Miguel Cardona made his way across the country to speak at the 2023 National Association of Bilingual Education Annual Conference. He joined thousands of educators who had also traveled to the conference despite the harsh and dangerous weather. Meeting him and then hearing his opening remarks made me reflect on how vital leadership is in creating the right conditions for students and teachers to thrive, even when faced with metaphorical winter storms. What struck me most from this shared lived experience was the distinct resiliency that compelled so many of us to brush aside the inhospitable conditions and fully immerse ourselves in community with other multilingual and language educators.

At the conference, Cardona, who is the first secretary of education with formal preparation in bilingual education, presented concrete actions for increasing program funding; expanding bilingual teacher preparation, recruitment, and retention; and elevating the importance of the Seal of Biliteracy.

He prefaced these remarks with a call for districts and schools to go beyond an English-centric mindset: “Let’s put to bed, once and for all, the notion that multilingualism is just a bonus—or worse, a deficit. Let’s build a new era of multilingualism in America—an era where our young people can lead thriving lives and careers with their knowledge of languages from Mandarin to French, Spanish to Japanese. And let’s foster a new multilingual generation of Americans— strengthened in their identities, supported in their education, prepared to lead in our country and around the world.” –Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, NABE Conference, 2023

Without a doubt, school and district leaders play a critical role in making this mindset shift happen, and to do so they must be equipped with a strong knowledge base about what makes dual language programs work and how they can best guide their continued improvement. The success of bilingual education and dual language models over time also requires a comprehensive and well-calibrated effort that includes extensive preplanning, comprehensive needs assessments, consistency in implementation, systems of support, adequate funding, and ongoing program evaluation (Soltero, 2016). While this is not an easy task—especially given shifting demands and expectations, as well as external pressures on school and district leaders—creating sustainable, high-quality dual language programs is very much an attainable goal.

A Road Map for Dual Language Education Leaders
In my recent chapter, “A Framework for Success: Dual language education building blocks” (Soltero, 2023), I discuss nine major areas, or building blocks, to consider in the planning, implementation, and sustainability of effective programs. One of those areas is what I call will—educators and leaders must be willing to think outside the box, take risks, adapt existing structures, advocate, and engage in other efforts that do not neatly fit in the status quo. Of particular importance is the will to think outside and beyond the English-centric box so that we can shift to a new standard of multilingual, biliterate/multiliterate, and culturally responsive education. More than ever, the advocacy of dual language and bilingual education leaders is essential as we face growing English-centric, narrow views of education, literacy, and assessments. This in turn results in increasing rates of bilingual education teacher burnout (Amanti, 2019).

Souto-Manning et al. (2016) propose that school and district leaders take on a “courageous leadership” stance by actively challenging incorrect assumptions and ill-advised mandates that contradict research on language learners’ academic, linguistic, and socio-emotional development. The most effective way to counter the status quo is by creating sustainable, high-quality dual language programs and showcasing long-term positive student academic outcomes. Menken (2017) adds that “for school leaders to successfully implement and sustain dual language bilingual education programs, they must be able to negotiate and resist top-down policies and external pressures promoting English-only instruction” (p. 3).

Leading with courage in the face of these challenges calls for district and school leaders to modify existing policies and expectations in ways that align to the foundational principles of dual language education and what we know are sound pedagogical practices for language learners. In looking for the metaphorical compass of dual language education, the following three premises together can serve as a “true north star” to help us stay on our path to success for all students: 1. A shared common vision that provides long-term direction; 2. Organizational systems that foster quality, sustainability, and engagement; 3. Instructional grounding that guides linguistically and culturally responsive practices in teaching and learning, curriculum, and assessment. It is important to note that the elements discussed under each of the three areas are by no means exhaustive, as other aspects specific to each school and district should be considered.

Vision-Driven: A Shared Common Vision That Provides Long-Term Direction
Vision statements are founded on shared beliefs that reflect the goals and aspirations of a school and district. They are fundamental in guiding decision-making and providing mutually agreed direction for the entire school and district community (Scanlan and López, 2015; Soltero, 2016; Soltero, 2023). Dual language education vision statements must be based on principles of linguistically and culturally responsive education and be grounded on equity, access, and inclusion for all students.

A core tenet of a dual language education vision is that it must not be a standalone statement but rather it must live, or better yet be embedded, within the larger vision of the school and district. A shared vision underscores the importance of developing students’ academic excellence, biliteracy, cross-cultural competencies, and social–emotional well-being and is most effective when based on certain shared beliefs about learning, teaching, curriculum, and assessment. For example, teachers and principals who believe that learning is more effective when students are actively engaged in authentic and meaningful activities are likely to use instructional approaches and curricular programs that are learner-centered, integrated, interactive, and collaborative (Soltero, 2011). Likewise, visions that view students’ languages and cultures as valuable assets will leverage them as resources to further develop their bi/multiliterate, sociocultural, and academic competencies.

School and district leaders who are knowledgeable and well-informed have a vantage point in helping to “develop and communicate a school-wide shared vision for the program and for the promotion of bilingualism and biliteracy and ensure that there is a plan to bring that vision to fruition” (Tedick and Lyster, 2020, p. 43). Creating district and school vision statements that integrate dual language education goals is best accomplished through a cross-section of district and school stakeholders who include teachers, support staff, administrators, students, parents/ families, and members of the community.

Systems-Driven: Organizational Systems that Foster Quality, Sustainability, and Engagement
The longevity of high-quality dual language education programs is often characterized by the types of program systems and structures that are designed strategically for long-term implementation. These systems and structures provide the criteria and guidelines to ensure: 1) cohesion among language and content curriculum, instructional approaches, and assessment practices; 2) consistency across grade levels and content areas in subjects such as teaching practices, classroom routines, types of student engagement, assessment tools, and instructional materials; 3) coordination strategies that include vertical articulation, curricular mapping, alignment of standards across languages, and calibration of assessments, all of which help in ensuring cohesion, consistency, and continuity within and across grade levels and content areas (Soltero, 2011).

Creating strong systems and structures requires knowledgeable teachers and school leaders who are well prepared but also well supported. District administration and school principals therefore must make long-term commitments through actions such as formally adopting a district dual language education policy endorsed by their boards; including bilingual and dual language education in district strategic plans; allotting a permanent budget line item for dual language programs; and establishing required consultation with the district multilingual learner department on any curricular, assessment, and policy decisions. These are but a few ways that districts demonstrate long-term commitment to multilingual learners, their teachers, and their families.

Establishing strong partnerships with families and the community helps affirm students’ heritage languages and cultures and advance their academic success. Research clearly points to the positive effects of family engagement, regardless of income level or ethnicity, in the education of children, leading to increased academic achievement, school engagement, motivation, better school attendance, and lower dropout rates (Barger et al., 2019). For multilingual families in bilingual and dual language programs, it is especially important to identify and help lessen the structural, societal, and linguistic barriers to their participation. Increasing family engagement and creating optimal spaces for effective partnerships requires systemic implementation of more permanent and well-funded infrastructures than the typical school has. Ishimaru (2019) proposes what she calls a “conceptual framework of equitable collaboration” that utilizes more “reciprocal, collective, and relational strategies:
• parent capacity-building,
• relationship-building, and
• systemic capacity-building efforts” (p. 352).

Under a systems-driven paradigm, schools and districts are responsible for formalizing organizational structures that increase family engagement in meaningful ways.

Figure 1: North Star of Dual Language Education Leadership

Instruction-Driven: Instructional Grounding Guides Linguistically and Culturally Responsive Practices
Instructional approaches, materials, assessments, and professional development that are linguistic and culturally responsive are key to the effectiveness of dual language programs and students’ long-term academic achievement, biliteracy development, and cross-cultural competencies. This requires that school and district leaders pay careful and sustained attention to all instructional aspects of the program, and when higher-level mandates contradict principles of dual language education, they advocate and educate to ensure proper alignment.

It is widely known that learning works best when students engage in problem-solving, critical thinking, connecting to their prior knowledge, and making sense of ideas and concepts in collaboration with others. For dual language education classrooms, learner-centered instruction is especially important, given the variations in students’ second-language proficiency levels, home and school experiences, and socio-emotional well-being. Because dual language students are developing literacy in two or more languages while also learning academic content and developing cross-cultural competencies, they must have ample opportunities with engaging, complex, and authentic curriculum and materials supported by the appropriate levels of scaffolding. Adoption of English-centric, one-size-fits-all, and teacher-centered, transmission-oriented instruction that focuses on isolated discrete skills, memorization, and rote learning prevents bilingual learners from being fully engaged with new content in their second language (Hopewell et al., 2023).

On a par with the importance of instructional consideration is the selection and use of instructional materials. Dual language programs should be resourced with linguistic and culturally appropriate instructional materials and curriculum that promotes content, language, and literacy development in and across both languages. Instead of highly scripted and skills-focused materials that rely on decodable readers and controlled text, teachers should use an abundance of authentic children’s and young adult fiction and nonfiction literature and other texts. High-quality texts not only promote a love of reading but also expose students to rich language and vocabulary, high-interest content, and culturally relevant topics. Blum-Martinez and Wong Fillmore (2023) suggest that authentic texts “provide students with models of language appropriate to the rhythms, expressions, structures and traditions of a culture… and also introduce themes and worldviews of the speakers of that language” (p. 454).

Culturally and linguistically appropriate assessments are another crucial aspect of dual language education. Assessment instruments that are designed for and norm-references on English speakers are neither valid nor reliable and only result in flawed data that drives flawed decision-making about bilingual learners. Instead, districts and schools should use assessments that are specifically designed for second-language development (L2), whether English or a language other than English (LOTE) as the second language, and consider the intersectionality between academics, languages, biliteracy, and culture in the dual language context. In addition, assessments for the LOTE must be authentic to that language and not translations of English tools and should include both formative and summative measures as well as performance-based practices. School leaders play a crucial role in setting goals and expectations around professional learning for dual language educators. A good indicator of school leaders’ commitment is their own participation in professional development alongside their teachers. This also ensures that everyone receives the same information, creating common understanding and shared knowledge and in turn facilitating the consistency, cohesion, and coordination mentioned earlier. A cautionary note regarding dual language educators attending general education classroom or districtwide professional development that presents English-centric information or mandates that conflict with foundational premises of dual language education: The school leader and the district multilingual learner department director have a responsibility to clarify expectations and correct any contradictory information and directives.

In Summary
A starting point for new dual language programs—which can also serve as guidance for revitalizing established ones—is for dual language leaders and teachers to galvanize around the three premises described above. A vision-driven, systems-driven, and instruction-driven approach provides the necessary foundational direction to design and implement effective and sustainable dual language programs. Weathering the metaphorical winter storms and the winds of administrative change in bilingual and dual language education requires courageous leadership, intentionality, and forward thinking. In Secretary of Education Cardona’s own words: “We’re talking about realizing the full promise of America… It’s the promise of America to deliver a brighter future for those whose differences were once treated as deficits—to celebrate those differences as superpowers—where the son of Puerto Ricans who were treated as second-class citizens in all English classrooms can now give guidance to the president of the United States on how to promote multilingualism. If we get multilingual education right, we deliver on that national promise for a whole new generation of Americans.”

Amanti, C. (2019). “The (Invisible) Work of Dual Language Bilingual Education Teachers.” Bilingual Research Journal, 42, 4, 455–470.

Barger, M. M., Kim, E. M., Kuncel, N. R., and Pomerantz, E. M. (2019). “The Relation between Parents’ Involvement in Children’s Schooling and Children’s Adjustment: A meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin, 145, 9, 855–890.

Blum Martinez, R., and Wong Fillmore, L. (2023). “On Curriculum and Pedagogy in Dual Language Bilingual Education.” In J. A. Freire, C. Alfaro, and E. J. de Jong (Eds.), The Handbook of Dual Language Bilingual Education (pp. 444–460). Taylor & Francis.

Cardona, M. (2023). Remarks by US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) 52nd Annual International Bilingual and Bicultural Education Conference. US Department of Education.

Hopewell, S., Slavick, J., and Escamilla, K. (2023). “Toward a Biliterate Pedagogy.” In J. A. Freire, C. Alfaro, and E. J. de Jong (Eds.), The Handbook of Dual Language Bilingual Education (pp. 473–493). Taylor & Francis.

Ishimaru, A. M. (2019). “From Family Engagement to Equitable Collaboration.” Educational Policy, 33, 2, 350–385.

Menken, K. (2017). Leadership in Dual Language Bilingual Education. Center for Applied Linguistics.

Scanlan, M., and López, F. A. (2015). Leadership for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Schools. Routledge.

Soltero, S. W. (2023). “A Framework for Success: Dual language education building blocks.” In J. A. Freire, C. Alfaro, and E. J. de Jong (Eds.), The Handbook of Dual Language Bilingual Education. Taylor & Francis

Soltero, S. W. (2016). Dual Language Education: Program Design and Implementation. Heinemann. Soltero, S. W. (2011). Schoolwide Approaches to Educating ELLs: Creating Linguistically and Culturally Responsive K–12 Schools. Heinemann.

Souto-Manning, M., Madrigal, R., Malik, K., and Martell, J. (2016). “Bridging Languages, Cultures, and Worlds through Culturally Relevant Leadership.” In S. Long, M. Souto-Manning, and V. Vasquez (Eds.), Courageous Leadership in Early Childhood Education: Taking a Stand for Social Justice (pp. 57–68). Teachers College Press.

Dr. Sonia Soltero is professor and chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum at DePaul University and former director of the Bilingual–Bicultural Education Graduate Program. Soltero’s publications related to dual language and Latino education include three books, the latest entitled Dual Language Education: Program Design and Implementation. She has been involved in dual language education for more than 30 years as a university professor, researcher, professional developer, and former dual language public school teacher.

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