Back in July, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the creation of a city Office of New Americans intended to, in his words, “make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world.”

Indeed, immigration continues to change the face of Chicago and the metro area. In the city, one in five residents is foreign-born, according to census data, and 12 percent of students are English-language learners. In the suburbs, the ELL population has doubled in a quarter of school districts, and educators are grappling with how to educate these students at a time when state dollars are shrinking.  

The problem was apparent when Associate Editor Rebecca Harris reviewed Illinois State Board of Education audits of bilingual programs. As she reports in this issue of Catalyst In Depth, all of the districts audited in the Chicago metro area were found to be in violation of the state’s bilingual education law.  (The state audits districts on a rotating basis.)

Perhaps more surprising, these dismal results aren’t unusual, state officials say—in fact, it’s routine for districts to be out of compliance.

In part, that’s because of Illinois’ strong law on bilingual education. For one, Illinois is one of just a handful of states to require that students be taught in their native language by certified bilingual teachers, with an increasing percentage of instruction in English as students learn the language. But failure to provide enough native-language instruction was among the most common problems cited by state auditors.

A state-appointed task force is recommending changes that would ease the law’s requirements on native-language instruction. But their recommendations could be controversial, and are somewhat counter to what experts recommend for children.

Judy Yturriago, a Northeastern Illinois University professor and former head of Evanston’s bilingual education program, pointed out to Harris that “most principals and policy makers do not understand first- and second-language acquisition. They don’t understand the role of primary language. They don’t understand that children who are proficient in the primary language will do better later on.”

Nothing in education is simple. But there is a guiding principle that could help solve the puzzle and better educate all students: Require every student to have at least basic proficiency in two languages to graduate from high school. Non-English-speakers would learn English but become literate in their native language as well. English-speaking students would have to learn a foreign language—something that students in other countries routinely do.

Illinois is one of a minority of states that, according to Education Week, does not use international comparisons to inform its education reform efforts. That doesn’t bode well. For students to thrive economically and socially, they need to be prepared to work and live in a multicultural, multilingual world.

Foreign-language coursework is now only an option under Illinois graduation requirements. One way for Illinois to bring its schools more in line with those in higher-performing countries—in fact, in higher-achieving districts elsewhere in the U.S.—would be to institute stronger language programs.

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Associate Editor Rebecca Harris began reporting this issue of Catalyst In Depth several months ago. She and Deputy Editor Sarah Karp are already hard at work on upcoming issues. Every issue takes several months of data analysis and on-the-ground, inside-schools reporting. That investment of time takes money, but the end result is the award-winning quarterly publication that is our hallmark.

Despite the cost, Catalyst Chicago provides free Catalyst In Depth subscriptions to members of Chicago’s local school councils. We post all of our stories on the web—also free. That’s because we are committed to providing high-quality education journalism to the public as a whole, not just the leaders at the top.

If you value our reporting and its widespread distribution, we ask you to join us as a member. To learn more about our membership program, go to Join us and help us keep the information flowing.

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