The education debate in New Mexico desperately needs a reframe. Too often students who possess a language other than English are considered to pose a “problem” to our school system, rather than possessing an asset that should be shared with other students.
Unfortunately, this has been the lens applied to our students and families for the last 100 years in a state known as the Land of Enchantment because of its physical beauty and unapologetic multicultural and multilingual vibrancy. Imagine for a moment a methodical and unwavering system focused on eliminating the very essence of what makes our state unique and so wonderfully enchanting. Consider as well the systematic erasing of the social fabric, cultural practices and languages used for centuries in this land of enchantment to thrive, dream and prosper.
What if instead of viewing students who speak a language other than English at home as “at risk,” we finally recognize they are “linguistically enriched,” a phrase used at a recent Legislative Education Study Committee by state Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque?
The evidence suggests that is the more accurate description. Rather than considering bilingual education a nice extra for our public schools, we should be shifting educational investment toward a multicultural approach with bilingual education as a core component. The result will be an education system that better serves all students while achieving improved outcomes.
Study after study touts the lifelong cognitive benefits of bilingualism, from enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills to an ability to focus and shift attention to delayed onset of Alzheimer’s and slower cognitive decline with aging. Add to that the social and economic benefits for multilingual students entering a globalized marketplace, and it becomes even clearer New Mexico should join high-performing educational systems around the world in making bilingual education a central part of the curriculum.
The U.S., with all of its diversity, is one of a handful of countries that will deliberately offer an English-language-centric education for most of a student’s educational career and then, in high school or college, encourage the study of a foreign language. Twenty out of 25 industrialized nations begin teaching second languages between kindergarten and fifth grade, and 21 of 31 countries in the European Union require nine years of second-language learning. Currently, Utah is the nation’s leader when it comes to dual-language programming. Given our state’s rich diversity, it ought to be New Mexico.
The reality is New Mexico is a multilingual state. Three-quarters of our students are Hispanic or Native American and over a third speak a language other than English at home. That diversity is at the center of New Mexico’s rich cultural heritage. It can also be an educational asset, if we shift educational investment priorities to create a more culturally and linguistically relevant and responsive system that benefits all students and nurtures all of our communities.
Multilingual classrooms are a win-win for all students, benefiting both non-English speaking and English-speaking students. That requires attracting, retaining and training educators to provide bilingual and multilingual education. We need more bilingual teachers and more teachers trained to teach speakers of other languages. They need adequate pay and professional development opportunities as well as culturally and linguistically appropriate materials for the classroom.
New Mexico is at a critical juncture. The courts have determined the state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility to adequately educate its children. Experts agree that a multicultural approach is needed. And the state is uniquely positioned to soundly invest in what we know works. Bilingual education is a proven strategy to better meet students where they are and better prepare them for the future.
Adrian Sandoval is an Albuquerque parent and educator.