Spanish Dual Language Programs Could be the Answer for DC English Language Learners

Ashlynn Profit, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Although K-12 student test scores are on the rise in the District of Columbia across subgroups (e.g. racial ethnic groups, homeless students, students enrolled in special education), achievement gaps still exist throughout the nation’s capital. One group that’s falling behind is English Language Learners (ELLs). In 2014, only 37% of students identified as ELLs were proficient in reading on DC’s standardized tests, while about half of all students were proficient, and 91% of white students were. As the District continues to build on efforts to boost achievement, special attention needs to be paid to ELLs.

Two-way dual language programs may be the answer for DC. Since 76.8% of the District’s ELLs speak Spanish, offering a dual language program in Spanish and English, in which half the students are native Spanish speakers, and half are native English speakers, is the best option for DC to reach the most students.

Dual language programs work in various ways. For example, fourth graders in the Houston Independent School District take language arts, reading, and math in Spanish, and science, social studies, and English literature in English. Many schools, such as those in the Boerne Independent School District in Illinois, offer students support in their first language to ensure they understand the content. This support can entail homework help for students and parents or offering labs in students’ native languages to ensure they grasp the content. Other schools alternate languages by day. Students may learn every subject in English on Tuesdays, and in Spanish on Wednesdays.


Increased student achievement

Research shows that dual language programs boost student achievement, especially for ELLs. The cities of Charlotte and Houston are already reaping the benefits of student achievement from dual language programs. In North Carolina, the school with the highest math achievement scores in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg District, Collinswood Language Academy, is a dual language school. The students learn math in Spanish, but take standardized tests in English. The school is seeing test score gains across subgroups, including low-income students. A study by Rice University found that ELL students enrolled in two-way dual language programs in Houston saw faster growth in their reading scores and increased English language arts test scores. Those who participated for four years had the highest English reading achievement scores in the sample.

Preparing students for a global workforce & enrollment boosts

Dual language programs treat students’ native languages as assets, rather than liabilities. Many of the District’s schools are missing the opportunity to help students capitalize on being bilingual. Both native English  and Spanish speakers who are bilingual are more competitive in the college admissions process and the labor market. DC now recognizes students who are bilingual with a “Seal of Biliteracy” at their high school graduation. Dual language programs can pave the way for students to receive that honor and standout as they seek other opportunities post-graduation.

For DC Public Schools (DCPS) specifically, dual language programs and better outcomes for students may attract more families. By offering dual language programs, more parents may enroll their children.

Safer and healthier learning environment

By allowing students to learn in their first language, work in an environment where their first language is a strength, and be taught by teachers who are certified to work them, ELLs will likely enjoy a safer and healthier learning environment. In dual language programs, they are celebrated rather than punished for speaking a language other than English.They are learning at least half the content in the language they are most comfortable with and in an environment where everyone makes mistakes. Not only do dual language programs boost achievement, they also help students foster connections with their culture and peers.



Two-way dual language programs are the most expensive type of bilingual education. The costs associated with recruiting and training teachers, purchasing bilingual materials for the classroom, and various other aspects of the program are very high. Other types of bilingual programs, such as transitional late-exit and one-way developmental, cost much less than two-way dual language programs. In the first cost analysis of dual language programs in Texas, researchers found that dual language programs cost $12,600 more than standard, transitional programs annually.

Teacher shortage

In order for dual language programs to be successful, they must be taught by highly qualified, bilingual teachers. There is currently a shortage of these types of teachers. The Department of Education identified bilingual education and English Language Acquisition as high-need areas for teachers. According to New America, DCPS currently relies on the Spanish Embassy’s Visiting Teachers from Spain program. Relying on this program presents many challenges – most of the teachers can only work for one to three years and systemic and cultural differences may make it difficult for the teachers to transition into an American classroom.

Isolating other students

While a Spanish dual language program has many strengths for native Spanish and English speakers, other ELLs will not enjoy the benefits of the program. Since the majority of of ELLs speak Spanish, other dual language programs may not justify the costs. Since the majority of ELLs speak Spanish as their first language, students who speak other languages will become a small minority in their schools and may feel isolated.

Dual language programs are the answer to improving ELL’s achievement in DC. However, many barriers can hinder the program’s success, such as costs and the ability to staff the programs. If administrators invest the proper monetary and human capital resources into all ELLs and  programs that serve them, DC can close the achievement gap between ELLs and their peers. Closing the achievement gap increases the opportunities all students have access to after they graduate high school, and benefits not only students and their families, but all DC residents.

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