The Dual Language Lottery System and The Myth of Meritocracy and Fairness

Dual Language Lotteries Are Not Always Fair…Photo by Waldemar Brandt on

During the last few months, we have been focused on the different types of microaggressions.  We have talked about treating Asian Americans as aliens in their own land and the harm of denying one’s own biases.  But perhaps a quieter, more pernicious microaggression that exists within our Dual Education world is the myth of meritocracy and fairness.  

Meritocracy, or the idea that if one works hard enough, one can be successful is at the base of what we, as a culture, believe to be American.  We think that if students work hard and continue to apply themselves, they will be able to get into good colleges, get good jobs, and be able to buy their own homes in desirable neighborhoods.  And those who have achieved, have done so because of their own hard work.

The basic, underlying assumption when it comes to meritocracy is that everyone starts at the same place and that life is fair.  However, nothing could be farther from the truth.  While some families have spent generations amassing wealth for their progeny, others have spent generations amassing wealth for the privileged class under the brutal systems of chattel slavery and Jim Crow.  Furthermore, those with varying levels of economic privilege can afford to provide their children with SAT tutoring, extracurricular opportunities, and better school systems, all of which lead to better college and work opportunities.  Finally, those with racial privilege do not face the same glass ceilings that those who are visibly of color do while striving to climb the ladder of success.  

Assuming that everything is “fair” and that one needs only to work hard to gain all that life has to offer allows us to victim blame and to not work at ensuring opportunities for those who fundamentally need support.  Even in Dual Language, a program designed to close opportunity gaps, these fundamental ideas of meritocracy and fairness creep in.  Because most programs do not have enough seats for all interested families, lottery systems are created to ensure that admission to the program is “fair,”  but the idea that a lottery system can be “fair” suggests that all students enter school starting at the same place. Nothing can be further from the truth.  

First, Emergent Bilinguals, or students who speak a Language Other Than English (LOTE) and who are still gaining English proficiency, enter school with an opportunity gap, and the only research-proven program to close the opportunity gap for Emergent Bilinguals is the Dual Language program.  This is the case regardless of whether the program is a One-Way program or a Two-Way program.  By opening the lottery to students who are not Emergent Bilinguals when there are still Emergent Bilinguals needing the program, we are taking a program that was designed to close the opportunity gap for a certain set of students and giving their seats to students who do not suffer from an opportunity gap.  In other words, we ignore the fact that there are certain students who “need” the program and give their seats to students who “want” the program, and we do this under the guise of “fairness” through a blind lottery system.

Furthermore, even when all Emergent Bilingual students have seats in the program, if we were to hold a lottery system for the remaining seats, we would still likely be subjecting our students to the prevailing myth of meritocracy and fairness because there would still likely be a set of students who need the program more than others. Since Thomas & Collier have demonstrated that Dual Language programs help all students, we should consider which students need the program most.  We can do this by determining which groups of students have opportunity gaps that we, as educators, need to close and which students’ cultural identities are dependent upon being bilingual.  For instance, students of color, students with low income, and students who are Emergent Bilinguals but speak a language other than the program language suffer from opportunity gaps and can disproportionately benefit from Dual Language programs.  Furthermore, students who are not Emergent Bilinguals but have the LOTE as a home language will benefit more from the program than pure monolinguals because of the program’s ability to help them preserve their cultural identity and connections with their extended families.

Hence, rather than allowing lottery systems to keep students who need Dual Language programs out, we need to instead, consider opening more programs that provide Dual Language instruction for all Emergent Bilinguals who have the LOTE as a home language.  This is the only way to ensure that we do not continue to commit the microaggression of meritocracy and fairness within our programs.  

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