Are Dual Language Programs Widening the Academic Gap?

How many times have you had what you thought was the greatest idea only for it to backfire into something less than perfect? We’ve all been there. What happens when an idea that was great in theory starts to have the opposite effect on a whole group of people? That’s just what seems to be happening with students who are enrolled in dual language programs.

They were first thought of as a surefire way to knock down barriers between students of different races, languages, and socio-economic groups. But, now they are headed in the opposite direction. Enrollment in them is becoming a symbol or privilege in schools across the country. This was not the intended goal.

canstockphoto24487090.jpegDual-language classes are surging in popularity among predominantly white, upper-class families where English is the main language. While some may see this is as a plus because it puts pressure to spread the availability of dual language programs, it’s actually hurting other ethnic groups because it’s keeping them out of these types of classes. These are the types of classes that would help them succeed as adults in the United States and contribute to society.

So, how did we get here?

This growing trend is at the center of a 2016 study called “The Gentrification of Dual Language Education” by Veronica E. Valdez, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Utah along with Juan A. Freire and Garrett Delavan. In the 29-page paper, Valdez and her co-authors hammer home their findings of dual language programs in Utah.

Largely associated with the Mormon religion, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2010 that Utah had a white population of 86.1% with Hispanic/Latinos the largest minority at 13.0%.

However, Utah also has the eighth-fastest growing population of students entering school speaking a language other than English. That survey showed that 137,000 such students entered the public school system in 2010, compared to just 41,000 in 1990.

In 2007, the Utah State Office of Education referred to the 2007 Utah dual language education initiative as the “mainstreaming of DL”. Valdez feels that referring to the program as mainstream is just another word for the gentrification of dual language programs. In the end, she says the dual language programs mainly benefited, whiter and wealthier students who thought of English as their main language.

Why are there more and more rich, white students in dual language classes? The answer is in the research that shows students who speak more than one language not only do better in school, but also succeed better socially. Who wouldn’t want that for their kids? But instead of using that research to build classes that are accessible to all groups, the spots are being saved for wealthier students. Basically, the program is turning into an epic fail. It was supposed to be the missing link to bring students of different cultures closer together. Instead, it is driving the elite further apart from their peers.

Although dual language classes are straying away from their purpose, studies show being multilingual is a major benefit in the working world. According to an article on the job marketplace website, 97% of North American recruiters cited Spanish as the additional language most in demand by employers. In border states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the ability to communicate in both English and Spanish is a highly desirable. It’s a win-win for in all types of fields ranging from police officers to doctors. The same article shows that 88% of executive recruiters say the ability to speak more than one language is crucial when it comes to succeeding in international business.


Since we all know being bilingual is a benefit to students when they get out into the real world, who’s to blame for not giving everyone a fair chance at it? Perhaps the shift to gifted and talented students and away from a broad base comes as a direct result of the pressure of legislation from powerful constituents. In Holyoke, Massachusetts, the dual language program is specifically designed for gifted and talented students. Miami-Dade is a Florida district of 370,000 students in which 62% are of Hispanic origin and 54% speak Spanish at home. At one point, 45% of the students were enrolled in bilingual Spanish classes. According to an article in the Miami Herald, the district began cutting its Spanish-only classes in 2013. Those classes were replaced with an “extended foreign language (EFL) program”. The program includes lessons in math and science in both English and Spanish.  While this doesn’t sound half-bad, there’s a catch. Students who don’t qualify for the program in kindergarten are often put on a waiting list for several years. Wait, there’s more. The district says that if a child is not performing at grade level in their native tongue, they cannot enroll in the EFL program. This is the rule despite research that shows learning a second language helps students succeed academically.

What can educators do to reverse the trend?

The clear goal is to make language immersion accessible to all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their current grade-point average. Specifically, this can be tackled in three ways:

  1. Eliminate the gentrification of dual language programming by wiping out prerequisites for inclusion in the classes. Excluding weaker students for a program that could make them better students overall makes no sense whatsoever. The only requirement should be a willingness to learn.
  1. Offer the sort of program that well-to-do parents are seeking for their children as an extracurricular class. Perhaps, a recreational club where there is a minimum requirement of academic achievement.  For those college-bound students and beyond who wish to pick up another language and be able to speak it fluently and conversationally, the option remains on the table. Meanwhile, campuses can still provide a more basic, attainable option to students that will help them improve in both languages.
  1. Provide incentives. Reward programs are proven to work. The incentives can be anything from a discounted movie ticket to something like the right to use the class as a credit replacement for a graduation requirement like an English class or elective.  The key is to find what motivates lower socioeconomic students and bring them into a class where they can thrive in their own home language. Doing this while gaining experience and confidence in another language should be the motivation of every educator who has access to a dual language program.

The bottom line is that we have to work together to improve the current dual language programs because they are not making the grade for those who need them the most. If you want to stay in the know with everything happening in bilingual education, then join our newsletter or follow us on Facebook or Twitter!


  1. Sean says:

    Thanks, Llacey. The Utah Dual Language Immersion programs don’t have any prerequisites for inclusion in their classes. Just what you recommend. There is also published research that shows that minority students are doing very well in them. They are expanding their knowledge of their first language (often Spanish) and performing academically as well as their peers who are not in DL programs. At the same time, their language and culture has gained much larger acceptance in the dominant community. And we call that gentrification? I call it a great idea.

    • Llacey says:

      Hi Sean,

      Thank you for leaving a comment. I guess this is one of those many educational debates. One good thing though is that more and more school systems are moving toward an immersion approach and offering foreign language a lot earlier in the process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *