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In the Nation's Interest

The Business Case for Dual Language Policies

by James Coviello August 01, 2017

The Value

For the U.S. economy to continue on a path of growth and innovation, we need to build an effective and globally competitive workforce. This workforce must be prepared with the knowledge and skills to contribute to our economy. Business leaders know this. They understand that in order to produce employees who can generate new markets, meet customer needs, and add shareholder value, investment in training and development is required. If we strengthen our human capital, we can all benefit through increased economic prosperity and improved goods and services. In order to succeed, we must focus on effective, targeted, long-term investments in our workforce.

The Problem

However, when we focus on the short-term and ignore long-term costs, we set ourselves up for failure.

The high school graduation rate has shown steady improvement over the last five years, increasing from 79% to 83% nationally.1 We should applaud this progress, as a high school diploma is a key stepping stone to economic security. Moreover, this level of education is becoming more of an urgent necessity, given that high school dropouts earn on average $26,208 a year, compared to $35,984 for individuals with a high school diploma.2 In the modern economy, the lack of a high school diploma is a one-way trip to a lifetime of economic hurdles and adversity.

More striking are the societal costs – the costs to citizens and taxpayers of those who do not graduate from high school.

A 2011 study by an economist at Columbia University calculated that the U.S. taxpayer will have to shell out an estimated $235,680 dollars for public assistance – such as food stamps, welfare, healthcare, and prison costs – over the lifetime of each of the 1.2 million students who drop out of school every year.3 These collective economic costs are just too great to ignore.

Of special concern is the education of English Language Learners, or what in education circles are called ELLs. The percentage of K-12 students who are ELLs is over 9% and increasing4 (and most of these kids are U.S. citizens5). However, this group of 4.6 million students suffers from overall low academic performance and an abysmal graduation rate: 63% compared to 83% overall.6 This is all part of the academic “achievement gap” in the United States. As was highlighted in CED’s podcast with Delia Pompa, Senior Fellow for Education Policy at the Migration Policy Institute, this is not good for America. And it is a waste of an important pool of talent.

Many different policy approaches exist for educating ELLs. Unfortunately, the most common programs – English as a Second Language and Transitional Bilingual – are not working. English as a Second Language policies, often called “sheltered instruction,” regularly pull ELLs out of the general education classroom for sessions of intensive English instruction. In Transitional Bilingual programs, ELLs are grouped separately and taught core academic lessons in their native language alongside English instruction, eventually transitioning towards using more and more English, with the goal of entering back into the general education classroom. Judging by program results to date, significant policy changes may need to occur.

The Solution

A more recent and increasingly promising approach is a “dual language” model.

Here’s how it works:

A dual language model splits the school day and offers instruction in both English and the students’ native language. This can either be done with a classroom of all ELLs (what is called “one-way”) or with a split of native English speakers and ELLs (“two-way”). In the “two-way” model, native English speakers learn a second language at the same time that ELLs learn English.

Proponents prefer this model for several reasons. First, ELLs are taught their core subjects in their native language, thereby allowing students to build on their previous non-English academic experience. Second, students are not segregated away from the general education classroom. The dual language approach recognizes the cultural and social value of having ELLs and native English speakers in the same classroom. Third, unlike other approaches, dual language promotes the continued growth and proficiency of ELLs’ native language. In the global economy, a second language is seen by many as an asset to be developed rather than an obstacle to be overcome. In fact, these programs have gained in popularity due in part to native English-speaking families seeing the value – and the competitive edge – in their sons and daughters learning a second language in an immersive environment.7

But most importantly, there is some exciting research showing that dual language policies could help shrink that stubborn “achievement gap.” The well-known Thomas and Collier study of ELL education programs showed that enrollment in dual language led to “grade-level and above-grade-level achievement in [students’] second language,” a gap-closing feat not seen in traditional approaches to ELL education.8 

Currently, 39 states utilize dual language as part of their ELL policy portfolio.9 But dual language policies need support for scaling-up. There is little investment, both for school principal and teacher training, and only six states have funding set aside specifically for dual language programs. There are often issues with complicated state teacher certification requirements that limit a school district’s capacity to expand dual language. In addition, some states actively attempt to limit dual language options by forcing all interested parents to sign an annual waiver application or physically come to their schools to sign a consent form.10

Dual language policies can be a commonsense strategy to ensure more students graduate high school, reduce costs of both social services and criminal justice in the long run, and increase workforce skills for the 21st century economy.  By strengthening the capabilities of all our students, we can create a workforce needed to keep the U.S. globally competitive.


By James Coviello, Archer Fellow at the University of Texas and CED Education Policy Intern

[1] National Center for Educational Statistics, “Fast Facts: High School Graduation Rates,”

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Projections: Unemployment Rate and Earnings by Educational Attainment, 2016,”

[3] Clive R. Belfield, Henry M. Levin, and Rachel Rosen, “The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth,” Corporation for National and Community Service and The White House Council for Community Solutions, January 2016,

[4] National Center for Educational Statistics, “Fast Facts: English Language Learners,”

[5] Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “The Limited English Proficient Population in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, July 8, 2015,,%20Race,%20and%20Ethnicity

[6] National Center for Education Statistics, “Table 219.46 - Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR), by selected student characteristics and state: 2010-11 through 2013-14,” Digest of Education Statistics,

[7] Tara Garcia Mathewson, “Rising Popularity of Dual-Language Education Could Leave Latinos Behind, The Hechinger Report, July 31, 2017,

[8] Virginia P. Collier and Wayne P. Thomas, “The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language for All,” NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 2:1 (2004): 1-20.

[9] U.S. Department of Education: Office of English Language Acquisition, “Dual Language Education Programs: Current State Policies and Practices,” December 2015,

[10] Ibid.