Category Archives: Education Technology

Building Connection and Boosting Achievement: The Role of Language Immersion Schools

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Too many Americans are missing out on the benefits of multilingualism. While roughly half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, only 20% of Americans can speak a language other than English fluently. Of that 20%, more than half were born outside of the U.S. American students rarely gain foreign language fluency in public schools, as opposed to Europe, where dual- or multi-language learning is embedded in primary education. Language learning at a young age has been proven to promote language retention into adulthood and provide a host of other social and academic benefits. As part of the 1% of American students who gained fluency in a new language through school, I can directly attest to its lifelong benefits. 

From kindergarten through fifth grade, I attended a French-immersion public magnet school. At language immersion schools, students are expected to speak exclusively in a given language while learning all of the standard subjects that would be taught at a typical American school. I learned science, math, history, and art just like any other student, but in French. We began supplementary English classes in the second grade to learn grammar and spelling, but our main curriculum was rooted in French. Although I had no prior exposure to French before kindergarten, by the time I reached third grade I was fluent. 

Since leaving a French-speaking environment in elementary school, my ability to speak French fluently has diminished slightly, but the experience has continued to benefit me in my academic and professional pursuits. In high school, I took Spanish for my required language classes and found it to be very similar to learning French. Picking up on the similarities between the two languages allowed me to excel at Spanish and speak the language with greater confidence. However, I’ve noticed that even today, my French retention is stronger. I believe this is largely due to learning the language at a younger age. 

Socially, I’ve used French to build relationships with native French speakers that wouldn’t be possible if I only spoke English. I think of my current neighbor, who is originally from Morocco and spent time living in France, who instantly lit up when he found out that I could speak in a language more familiar to him. Or the French-speaking high school exchange student I hosted from Mali, who felt more comfortable learning English with me knowing she could ask for translation support. The level of connection I’ve been privileged to experience with others has helped me learn about different cultures and expand my worldview ​​— an opportunity all Americans should be afforded.

Professionally, I’ve been able to apply my language skills in translation services. I once interned at a crisis center in Charlotte, North Carolina that received clients from all over the county. We had clients who immigrated to the U.S. from French-speaking countries and spoke little English. Out of a staff of more than 30 employees, I was the only one who could translate and communicate with them. In public service, multilingual staff can help connect non-native English speakers to necessary resources. 

As the immigrant population continues to grow in the U.S., more employers are placing greater value on bilingualism as a preferred skill. In fact, workers in the U.S. with fluency in more than one language tend to earn more on average. Learning another language as early as possible sets students on a trajectory for greater earning potential and aligns with workforce needs. 

The popularity of language immersion schools has increased significantly over the last few decades, yet there are not nearly enough schools to meet demand. Many native and non-native English-speaking families are seeking language immersion programs because of their positive effects on student academic performance. Studies have shown that elementary school students in language immersion programs tend to have higher math test scores and demonstrate similar levels of proficiency in English Language Arts as non-immersion students. Language immersion schools have also been effective at closing achievement gaps, with Black and Latino students performing on par with — or often outperforming — their white peers.

Language is a source of connection that far too many Americans take for granted. I was lucky to attend one of more than 337 language immersion elementary schools in the U.S., an opportunity that every family should have. Learning French has opened new worlds and exposed me to a variety of cultures and people. Language immersion schools are a necessary tool to produce more well-rounded global thinkers that can communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds.

Given the academic, social, and professional benefits of being bilingual, language immersion schools should be a priority for K-12 school districts in the U.S.

Saidah Rahman completed an internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on education policy. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part Three)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable.

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Diane D’Costa
Current Washington, D.C. Teacher

“If I had a magic wand, the one education issue I’d solve right now is reinstating the moratorium on evictions* and providing families impacted with financial hardship during the pandemic adequate resources to catch up on rent payments. After a year of instability and uncertainty, students returning to school are facing the reality of being kicked out of their homes because of the financial hardships caused by the pandemic. Restrictions being lifted and expectations that we are ‘back to normal’ at the same time as the start of the school year are a perfect storm to create another year of instability and distress for students that will inevitably impact if and how they are able to show up in the classroom. We will not be able to adequately heal from this last year and move on to the next one successfully unless we truly allow folks to recover before we simply pull the rug out from under them again.”

(*Editor’s note: Submission received prior to the Biden administration’s Aug. 3, 2021 eviction moratorium reinstatement, in effect through Oct. 3, 2021.)

Bart Epstein
CEO, EdTech Evidence Exchange; Research Associate Professor, University of Virginia School of Education & Human Development

“We need two things urgently:

First, we need an immediate and dramatic expansion of federal funding dedicated to studying thousands of edtech products. Why? Because our schools collectively spend tens of billions of dollars each year on edtech products with no clue about which products work, or how to effectively implement them. The needed research simply does not exist. As a result, a majority of edtech is barely used, used improperly, or not used at all. If the feds spend more than $40 billion annually on medical research and development, the budget for the entire federal Institute of Education Sciences should be much more than $00.6 billion per year

Second, we need a national online tutoring and homework help service to provide 24/7 on-demand academic support to every student in the country who needs help. It is shameful that such a program does not exist right now. The U.S. Military has provided a program of this type to children of servicemembers for more than a decade, and it has been a huge hit. Encouraging 13,000+ school districts to develop their own local tutoring programs is a mistake of epic proportions.”

Anne Mahle
Senior Vice President of Public Partnerships, Teach For America; Parent

“I’d wave my magic wand so that every school in the United States, no matter where it is located, is led by a well-supported transformational leader: one that is highly effective, culturally competent, and infused with creativity and courage. Effective school leaders are transformational — for students, for teachers, and for the broader school community of families and community members. We need school leaders who are compassionate and skilled in coaching and developing their teams to excel in drawing out the best in their students — inspiring curiosity, conviction, and engagement — while ensuring that students learn and grow academically and socio-emotionally. My magic wand would also ensure that these school leaders are compassionate and courageous enough to coach out teachers who do not create classrooms full of belonging, academic rigor, and joy. We have an opportunity to transform our schools into places of intellectual rigor and deep belonging for all students, enabling them to learn, lead, and thrive as we move into a future filled with both uncertainty and tremendous possibility.

And as a bonus, here’s my daughter Esther’s response (age 10) with no prompting from me: ‘I would have teachers respect all of their students, care for all of their students, and actually teach them all of the things well.’”

Laura McKenna
Education Writer, The Atlantic, Edutopia, The 74, and HuffPost

“I would love to fix many, many things with a magic wand, but if I had to pick one thing for kids and schools, it would be to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as originally promised by Congress, so that children with disabilities can get an education that they deserve.”

Dan Weisberg

“My magic wand would fix the fact that too many kids — particularly students of color — never even get the chance to do work that’s on their grade level. This is partly about instructional materials and teaching techniques, but our research has shown it’s just as much about belief in students’ potential. Teachers are usually trained to ‘protect’ students from grade-level work if they’re struggling academically — which only causes them to fall even farther behind. Underestimating what students are capable of is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But when given the chance and the right support, most students can succeed on grade-level work regardless of concepts they might have missed in previous grades. We could provide dramatically better and more equitable opportunities to millions of kids if we just started assuming every one of them can do grade-level work. Heading into a year when schools will need to accelerate more students than ever back to grade level after the disruption of the past 18 months, it’s never been more important to make this shift.”

Becca Bracy Knight
Former Executive Director, The Broad Center

“If I had a magic wand, I’d make all non-public school options disappear, requiring all families to enroll their children in the public school system. With a second wave of the wand, I’d make the student assignment to schools random so that families don’t have different options based on where they live. (I’d also provide teleportation services so that every student, caregiver, staff member, etc., could still easily get to and from their schools, regardless of distance.) A magical world in which everyone is personally invested in ensuring that all public schools provide an excellent education to all children — where no one can simply opt out based on their individual resources and options — might provide the funding and political will we need to actually deliver on the promise of public education.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

COVID-19 and Higher Education: A Q&A with Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—Camden

Earlier this year most colleges and universities shuttered and moved to virtual classes. Dormitories closed, study abroad programs were canceled, and graduation moved online. 

For many college students, campus closures created significant challenges. Some don’t have personal access to the technology needed to engage in virtual courses. Others don’t have a home to go to or a way to get food outside of their dorm. And after such a significant disruption, some first-generation and lower-income students may not make it back when schools finally reopen.

Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—CamdenI recently spoke with Howard Marchitello, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University—Camden to get a sense of how the school is responding to the crisis and meeting students’ needs. (Full disclosure: My colleague Max Marchitello is Dean Marchitello’s son.)

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

COVID-19 moved from a potential problem to a full-blown pandemic fairly quickly from mid-February into March. What were your initial reactions and concerns when it became clear that Rutgers would need to close its campuses? 

While we knew the Coronavirus would be an issue, it wasn’t immediately clear how big of an issue it would be. But once we knew we needed to take drastic measures, there was shock and disbelief across the campus, since we have never encountered anything of this magnitude before. Chief among my many worries was how we would keep everybody together, even as we dispersed students and faculty back to their homes. And sending folks home was not as straightforward as it sounds, because some of our residential students don’t have homes to go to. This was a big concern. 

How did you help those students who couldn’t go home once the campus closed? 

We had more than 100 students who had to stay on campus: international students who couldn’t go home and students who didn’t have a home. These students were able to live on campus. And since Camden is a bit of a food desert, we coordinated with the corporation that provides dining services to provide meals. We had a contingent of staff, some from the dining halls and some who had been reassigned from other areas, delivering meals to the residence halls. Nearly half these students have since found housing options in the city or surrounding areas, and the remaining 50 students are still living on our campus. We continue to provide dining services for them, as well as other supports, including our food pantry and our Wellness Center [a comprehensive health center], which has remained open and serving students throughout the semester. Continue reading

Bellwether’s Parent-Teachers in the Time of COVID-19

Here at Bellwether, we consider our people a big asset (we even made a video about how much we like working together). We fancy ourselves as a fun, smart, and high-achieving group committed to facing the biggest challenges in education. Many of our team members were classroom teachers prior to entering administrative, policy, evaluation, and strategy roles at Bellwether, so overseeing the education of our own children should come naturally — right?

Toddler on a coach with a laptop, tablet, smartphone, and videogame controller

Photo courtesy the author

Not exactly. Even with the benefits of a work-from-home culture, a core value of flexibility, and myriad other forms of access and privilege, my teammates are struggling. Many of us are now juggling being both a parent and a professional within the same limited hours in a day.

When I asked the Bellwether parents of pre-Kindergarten through high-school-age students to share their experiences, I got a number of candid responses. Even these competent, tech-savvy, education professionals identified palpable struggles managing their time, knowing how to prioritize support of their home learners, and meeting the individual needs of each child.

The Bellwether parents who responded live in eight different states (Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia), and collectively, they have 21 students. Most states were still in the early stages of closure when I conducted these polls, so the experiences below may not reflect improvements schools have made or will make.

What I heard around communications, materials, and processes is both scary and encouraging:

Continue reading

Five Themes, Plus Video, From Bellwether’s Webinar on #COVIDandSchools

Yesterday we hosted a robust webinar conversation about what’s been happening on the ground in American schools and what school leaders need to think about as they meet the remarkable challenges posed by COVID-19.

Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham shared the virtual stage with four pivotal sector leaders — Dan Domenech, American Association of School Administrators; Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools; Nina Rees, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools*; and Sonja Santelises, Baltimore City Public Schools — each of whom candidly talked about the challenges they’ve faced as school founders, district leaders, and organizational heads. While the conversation sometimes traced a grim reality, there were also shared stories of hopefulness, innovation, and success.

If you missed the webinar, a complete video recording with captions is available here and below: 

Here are five key themes that came up in the conversation (quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity):

Students’ humanity comes first.

Continue reading