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The Seal of Biliteracy Initiative

By: Laurie Olsen (2012)
Dr. Laurie Olsen

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Laurie Olsen offers an overview of the Seal of Biliteracy program in California and describes how an idea at the local level evolved to become a statewide policy initiative.

Background

What is the Seal of Biliteracy?

The Seal of Biliteracy is an award that validates, certifies and encourages students to pursue and attain high level mastery of two or more languages through a Seal granted upon high school graduation to all students with such skills. While it is a simple action to implement and simple policy to enact, It is powerful in shifting the dialogue and climate about issues as fundamental as language policy, intergroup relationships, immigrant integration, and what it means to prepare students for the 21st century. A grassroots effort in California over several years has led to more than 60 school districts offering the Seal of Biliteracy, and the passage of state legislation to provide a California Seal of Biliteracy on the diplomas of all high school seniors graduating proficient in two or more languages.

The Seal of Biliteracy campaign

The Seal of Biliteracy campaign came about in the midst of increasing linguistic diversity and immigration, and a simultaneous rise of political battles in California in response to those demographic changes. A ballot initiative passed in the state effectively banishing bilingual programs. Large numbers of immigrant children were entering California schools with a language other than English, but the vast majority were losing those languages in a subtractive pattern — as they become more English proficient, they lost the home language. California schools had become a monolingual system. And yet, research was mounting about the benefits of bilingualism, employers were increasing seeking workers with the skills to speak and reach across diverse communities, and the advent of the 21st century was stirring new dialogue about the kind of skills young people might need for the new global, diverse century.

Californians Together, a coalition of 23 statewide parent, professional and civil rights organizations focusing on improving policy and practice for the education of English Learners, decided to take on the challenge of developing a campaign to create a shift in paradigm from seeing language diversity as a problem to viewing language diversity as an asset — from viewing bilingual programs as a deficit and compensatory kind of approach, to realizing the benefits that accrue from such schooling. The idea of a Seal of Biliteracy was born as a way to honor the skills brought by immigrants to this nation, foster the development of bilingualism for all, and contribute towards producing a generation with the skills to bridge cultures and languages and to create more cohesive, respectful and connected communities.

Californians Together defined the Seal of Biliteracy criteria, and assembled materials and model approaches for implementing a Seal of Biliteracy in a school, district or region. A single work-book evolved into a series of workshops throughout the state for teams from schools and districts seeking to implement a Seal. Samples of the policies, application materials, assessment approaches and awards were collected and shared. Presentations at conferences throughout the state spread the word. At a time when difficult and often discouraging issues dominated education reform, the Seal of Biliteracy represented something positive that could be done with little expense.

Early successes

As pilot efforts took off, the positive impact on students, parents and communities proud of the linguistic achievements spawned newspaper articles and word-of-mouth outreach. Awards were being given for proficiency in Spanish, Korean, Armenian, Italian, French, Mandarin, German, Hebrew, American Sign Language. In some districts, students were honored for proficiency in three languages. Many immigrant students who mastered English proficiency and honed their home languages to high levels of literacy realized they now had a skill that not only positioned them for economic and labor market benefits, but were now able to play crucial leadership roles in bridging between their birth nation and their newly adopted nation.

Within two years, 63 school districts had signed on. Local and state endorsements began to build. The California School Boards Association send a sample board policy out to all of its members. The teachers unions were joined by the Association of California School Administrators in statements citing their support for the idea of recognizing the biliteracy skills attained by young people. Chambers of Commerce issued statements about the need for biliteracy skills.

A new piece of statewide legislation

By June of 2011, more than 6,000 young people throughout California had been awarded a Seal of Biliteracy. This groundswell made it possible to pass state legislation establishing the California Seal of Biliteracy — the first state in the nation to do so. This, in the state that just a decade previously had been the hotbed of the English Only movement and had voted by a two-to-one margin to end bilingual education.

How to Implement a Seal of Biliteracy

Clarifying purpose through a language policy

Any individual school, district or county/regional entity can award a Seal of Biliteracy. The first step is to clarify the purpose and rationale for providing the award specific to the community. It might be about encouraging students to study languages, or affirming home language, or preparing young people for college and the workforce, or strengthening intergroup relations. What resonates in one community is not what resonates in another. The specific purposes and rationale lead to the creation of a policy. It is important that a governing body create the award through policy. This is what gives it the weight of a statement by the schooling system that the skills of bilingualism have value. It is this process that opens up the dialogue so essential to change a societal paradigm — and provides the opportunity for a community to articulate how and how language diversity is important.

The process of creating the policy might begin with assembling a Working Group or Task Force of district staff, teachers of English Learners and World Language Teachers to think through how the award might work in their community, and who potential supporters might be. For example, in Anaheim Union High School District in southern California, a small working group drafted a policy statement tying the Seal of Biliteracy to a Board resolution for 21st century learning and to the district's strategic plan for implementing 21st century education. The passage of policy establishing the award thus became part of a broader district commitment to education for the new century. The working group in Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, crafted a policy statement that links the biliteracy award to the "districts commitment that every student graduate prepared and equipped with the knowledge and skills to participate successfully in college, career and a diverse 21st century society. Additionally the awards build upon the rich linguistic and cultural assets of the district…"

Certification of language proficiency

Certifying proficiency requires assessment or analysis of transcripts. For the most common languages, existing assessment such as the SAT II, Advanced Placement or IB tests — combined with completion of programs of language study simplify the challenge of certifying competency. Then, simply, the award process is announced, students are identified who meet the criteria, the award is designed and the award ceremony held.

Some districts are instituting "pathway" awards in addition to the Seal. Meant to encourage children from a young age to pursue language skills and to develop attitudes that value language diversity, the pathway awards also recognize age-appropriate proficiency that develops in multiple languages.

Now, through webinars with national audiences, continued efforts by Californians Together to share the story and concept of the Seal of Biliteracy nationally, there is work being done to build on California's experience and implement the idea in other parts of the country.

Recommended Resources

Materials to support every step of implementation for pathway awards and the Seal of Biliteracy are available through the Californians Together website.

For more information on the California State Seal of Biliteracy, visit the NCELA website.

Learn more about the history and implementation of the Seal of Biliteracy through this archived webinar from SchoolsMovingUp (February, 2012).

About the Author

Laurie Olsen is the Executive Director of California Tomorrow, a non-profit advocacy, research and technical assistance organization committed to helping create a fair and equitable society. Dr. Olsen is an expert on educational equity for immigrant students, students of color, language minority students and low- income students. She has directed the research and been the principal author of many of California Tomorrow's publications including (among others): Crossing the Schoolhouse Border, Embracing Diversity, The Unfinished Journey: Restructuring Schools in a Diverse Society, The Schools We Need Now: How Parents, Families and Communities Can Change Schools, Turning the Tides of Exclusion, and And Still We Speak…Stories of communities and families reclaiming and sustaining language and culture.

Before entering the field of education and advocacy, she worked as an assistant to Dr. Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History in New York. She is the past Chair of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students. Dr. Olsen holds a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Studies in Education from the University of California at Berkeley where she has also been a lecturer.

Acknowledgements

Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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