A New Horizon for English Language Education: How the Biden Administration Can Get it Right

By Yezenia Sandoval

For English Language Learners (ELLs), the appointment of Miguel Cardona, a former English Language Learner himself, as the Secretary of Education suggests a promising future in strengthening bilingual education programs across the nation. However, these programs face significant challenges; to ensure their success, the new administration should proceed deliberately and learn from the achievements and shortcomings of existing models.

The positive effects of bilingual education programs on academic learning are well-known, but state audits of bilingual programs as well as teacher interviews have raised concerns regarding how some programs are run. Many programs make limited efforts to engage parents and community members. Couple this with a lack of infrastructure and oversight to cement parent committees as integral parts of bilingual programs, and it is clear that immigrant parents face institutional barriers to understanding the extent of their roles as committee members. But these barriers are not insurmountable. 

Through a case study of bilingual education programs implemented in school districts across Illinois, we can see  potential to strengthen parental influence over bilingual education matters and create formal channels to incorporate parental feedback. In 2012, then-Governor of Illinois, Democrat Pat Quinn, signed legislation to strengthen bilingual education by mandating the state’s advisory council on bilingual education evaluate the quality of bilingual programs and explore ways to increase parental participation. Illinois’s House Bill 3819 or Public Act 097-0915 sought to promote accessible communication between immigrant families and school officials through the creation of formal opportunities for families’ active participation. 

This act addressed the need to consistently monitor and improve bilingual programs by bringing together multiple stakeholders through parent academies, offering parents professional development opportunities, and creating a cultural competency program for educators. The legislation served to acknowledge the critical role of parents in advocating for their children’s academic growth. As public schools tend to attract and serve a significant number of ELLs, who are predominantly Latinx, the act aimed to create a culturally relevant and community-based framework. However, the increasing privatization of education in recent years has left parents grappling with the conflicting values of equity and school choice, leading to a lack of clarity regarding their overall stake in the educational system.

Over the years, parents have increasingly been viewed as individual consumers, which goes hand in hand with schooling being seen as a way to increase human capital rather than as a responsibility to uphold equal opportunity for all students. Further, the privatizing effects of education has led to constrained school choice for parents, oftentimes leading them to rely on their social networks for information regarding the quality of schools. Bilingual education policies, such as HB-3819, have promising implications for equity and access but require parents to be at the forefront in making modifications, as deemed necessary, to drive institutional support for student success. An essential component of democratic education requires that local school districts value the community knowledge and unique perspectives parents can offer when important decisions are made.

The current status of bilingual education reveals the ways equal opportunity has been obscured through the prioritization of individual choice and competition. The perpetuation of unequal power dynamics by school administrators, tracing back to neoliberal educational policies, has oftentimes failed to help parents navigate educational processes, with parents lacking “insider” information and familiarity on the parameters of their power. Over time, there has been a shift from public schools serving the common good to individual self-interest. As bilingual programs have historically served low-income students of color in Illinois public schools, choice and advocacy on behalf of these students will also depend on the equitable distribution of funding and resources of individual school districts.

Although the policy reflects elements of democratic participation within public education, through its intentional efforts to increase the involvement of parents, it fails to address structural deficiencies related to underfunding and the lack of resources to support teacher instruction. For example, high-minority, high-poverty districts are disproportionately affected by increasing teacher shortages. In addition to high turnover rates, teachers in these districts are more likely to be uncertified, which raises concerns regarding the qualifications of bilingual educators within these school districts. The policy, while a step in the right direction, does not address these issues. Further, while the creation of parent academies and cultural competency programs will provide strategies to gain familiarity with the different aspects of bilingual programs and more clearly defined roles, there exists no formal feedback mechanisms.

Along with addressing the negative impact of disproportionate funding and access to resources on the quality of bilingual education programs, there is a need to evaluate the state’s role in supporting the operation of these programs, depending on school districts’ individualized needs. An analysis of “No Child Left Behind” reveals the ways in which the state must adapt their standards according to the resources available to school staff. More importantly, the rippling effects of No Child Left Behind highlight the need for states to play an assistance role rather than a regulatory role.” One area for improvement includes shifting towards evaluating ELLs by non-academic indicators alongside testing data that can provide a more accurate depiction of the overall needs of these students within and outside of the classroom. In exploring further areas for improvement, the unique perspectives from parents of ELLs in public schools offer equity-driven solutions that can help improve academic outcomes of disadvantaged students.

In considering next steps for the policy’s implementation and expansion, a focus on continuous improvement by tracking ELLs’ academic growth, consulting grassroots organizations on best practices for community input, and providing institutional support for ELL teachers, the policy can positively impact the direction of bilingual education programs. As

the policy intentionally applies a bottom-up approach, it would be beneficial to further research the policy stance of educational advocacy organizations, which could provide insight into areas of improvement to increase equitable school practices. Another measure of the policy’s effectiveness, specifically through the initiative of a cultural competency program for staff, is tracking the instructional improvement of bilingual educators and their retention rates. These reforms are a starting point towards collectively addressing current challenges to bilingual education and working alongside community members to ensure ELLs have access to equal opportunities. 

Ultimately, equity-driven reforms require parents gaining an understanding of how they can operate within an institutional framework as democratic citizens to advance public interests.

More importantly, there exists a need for “authentic participation,” moving beyond the mere act of volunteering and incorporating parents in several facets of the educational process, including school governance and decision making. Under the Biden administration, there is clear potential to improve bilingual programs, which should highlight the importance of a multicultural education, foster collaboration between education leaders, and increase support services to aid a growing population of English Language Learners.


Cover image is students learning biology in an ESL classroom. Photo by KOMU News, available through Flickr 

Yezeñia Sandoval recently graduated with her Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Policy from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and is currently a Program Associate for the Center of Education Design, Evaluation, and Research through U of M’s School of Education. She is interested in the co-creation of diverse programming and educational services that create access and better connect programs to the communities they serve