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Push on to get recognition for students who master foreign languages

Joseph Hurley School first-grade teacher Ana Soto helped Aayana Kelley with her English studies.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The Globe is taking a year-long look at promising practices to address a range of social, emotional, and cultural issues in Massachusetts public schools that could be affecting classroom achievement. The series is being produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, with funding by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. To see previous coverage, click here.

Massachusetts high school students who become fluent in a foreign language could be recognized for that achievement on their diplomas under a proposal being pushed by educators, advocates, and politicians who are trying to foster more multilingual speakers.

The proposal calls for the state to create a “seal of biliteracy” that would be granted to high school graduates who demonstrate a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing in another language.

Supporters say it is critical for Massachusetts to elevate its profile of foreign language instruction in order to better prepare students to prosper in a global economy and society. They also point to a growing body of research that shows bilingual students tend to recall information faster and solve problems more quickly than their monolingual peers.


The seal of biliteracy also could give students an edge in college admissions, providing them with a skill that sets them apart.

Currently, the Legislature is considering two bills that would create a seal of biliteracy, including one in the House that has more than 50 cosigners. Both bills would direct the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop the criteria for awarding the seal of biliteracy.

“I feel like the seal of biliteracy will inspire students to keep learning another language,” said state Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat, who introduced the bill with broad support.

The effort is part of a nationwide push for states to offer a biliteracy seal and comes as many of them are eager to compete more aggressively in today’s economy, where a multilingual workforce can be a boon.

So far, more than a dozen states, including California, New York, and Utah, as well as the District of Columbia, have adopted the seal over the past few years. Local supporters hope the national movement will spur Massachusetts to follow.


First-grader Ezra Devonshire in his English literacy class at the Hurley School.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Massachusetts doesn’t like being behind the curve,” said Yael Zakon-Bourke, president of the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education.

Yet the Bay State, which aspires to be a global leader in both education and business, has been behind in its commitment to foreign languages: State high school graduation standards only recommend that students take at least two years of foreign language instruction.

It is a far cry from much loftier ambitions Massachusetts once had for foreign language instruction in its schools.

As part of the 1993 Education Reform Act, the state was supposed to develop MCAS exams in the foreign languages, but never followed through due to budgetary constraints and competing priorities, such as creating MCAS math, English, and science tests, as well as a stalled effort to add social studies.

Paul Reville, a former state education secretary and an architect of the 1993 Education Reform Act, said creating a seal of biliteracy could be a good alternative to asking schools to take on administering another MCAS test, adding “we are at a testing overload at this moment.”

“I think it’s a good idea that our children have the opportunity and some push to learn another language and to do that in the earliest grade possible,” Reville said.

“I always thought it was a mistake to start teaching foreign languages in secondary schools.”

Across the country, states that have adopted seals of biliteracy also have taken the lead in teaching foreign languages in elementary schools by pushing for the creation of dual immersion programs, in which students split their time taking classes in English and another language. That approach often results in students taking a math, social studies, or a science class in a foreign language.


Boston and other Massachusetts districts are also looking to expand dual immersion schools and see a seal of biliteracy as an asset in that effort.

Some districts, such as Arlington, Framingham, and Melrose, are forging ahead by creating their own seals of biliteracy. But supporters say a statewide seal with a uniform set of criteria would be optimal.

Cristina Sandza-Donovan, whose three children have been in Spanish dual immersion programs in Framingham since they were 3 years old, said recognition for learning another language is long overdue.

“It gets hard and frustrating [learning another language] and some students will quit to focus more on science or math. But if they knew they could receive recognition on their diplomas, that could be enough of an incentive to continue,” said Sandza-Donovan, who also teaches fifth grade in the Spanish dual-language immersion program at the Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham.

Abbie Ashburn (left) and Cristina Olmos worked in a first-grade English literacy class at the Hurley School.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.