In the United States, the term bilingual education generally refers to programs that provide support to students with limited English proficiency. Some of these programs teach academic subjects in the students’ home language (usually Spanish) while also requiring language-minority students to take classes in English as a second language (ESL). Other programs aim to teach English to language-minority students by immersing them in English-only classes. Still others are two-way, or dual-language, programs that aim for fluency in two languages—for example, such a program might simultaneously teach Spanish to English-speaking students and English to Spanish-speaking students. These major approaches have several variations, and districts and schools may use a combination of them.
Thus, when people argue over bilingual education’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness, they could be discussing different forms of bilingual education. In public debate, however, bilingual education usually refers to transitional bilingual education (TBE), which provides native-language instruction to non-English-speaking students in preparation for their eventual learning of English in mainstream classes. The goal of these programs is to help students become fluent in English.
In the United States, bilingual education in its modern form began in 1968 with Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funding to schools to help them meet the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability. Title VII, also called the Bilingual Education Act, was born out of the civil rights movement, which, among other things, sought to strengthen economic, political, and social opportunities for minorities. The Bilingual Education Act, together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was expected to help change attitudes toward immigrant groups and ease resistance to ethnic languages.
The Bilingual Education Act resulted in the implementation of TBE programs in more than half the states, particularly in districts and schools that had large immigrant (most often Hispanic) populations. TBE programs, in which students are instructed in their native language before being taught English, revived a trend from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when bilingual education thrived among the early European settlers who sought to have children instructed in their mother tongue. In 1968, however, bilingual education was envisioned as a way to help Spanish-speaking children who had limited or no skills in English and were doing poorly in school.
Support for bilingual education
Advocates of bilingual education marshal a variety of arguments in its defense. Key supporters of bilingual education—among them academics like Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University, Colin Baker of the University of Wales, Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, and Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto—emphasize the effectiveness of using students’ native language as a resource in learning a second language. They maintain that the use of the students’ home language helps keep them from falling behind their fellow students while learning English. They claim that the first language serves as a bridge on learning, and that knowledge acquired in one language transfers to the other language. This means that a child who is not fluent in English but is fluent in Spanish will learn English easily because he has already learned the foundational processes in the first language. The “knowledge-transfer” hypothesis rests on the premise that the process of reading is similar across languages, even though the languages and writing systems are different. As professor of education Stephen Krashen, author of Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education, explains,
When schools provide children quality education in their primary language, they give them two things: knowledge and literacy. The knowledge that children get through their first language helps make the English they hear and read more comprehensible. Literacy developed in the primary language transfers to the second language. The reason is simple: Because we learn by reading, that is, by making sense of what is on the page, it is easier to learn to read in a language we understand. Once we can read in one language, we can read in general.
Notice that Krashen uses the word quality; it is a word that practitioners of bilingual education often emphasize. They maintain that the most effective bilingual education programs are two-way bilingual programs. Such programs aim to teach both native speakers of Spanish and native speakers of English, attending the same classes, academic subjects in both languages. The students initially receive 90 percent of instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English, and then the amount of English increases with each grade. Supporters of these programs point to studies, such as the one by researchers Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia Collier at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, that document the effectiveness of two-way bilingual programs. Thomas and Collier reviewed student records from 1982 to 2000 and found that English-language learners do better academically over the long term if English is introduced slowly instead of being submerged in intensive English instruction in a regular classroom. They conclude that two-way bilingual programs are “the only kinds of programs that fully close the achievement gap between Englishlanguage learners and native English-speakers over the long term.”
Most advocates of transitional bilingual education also believe that quality entails a long transition period, which is defined as the period during which a student is taught academics in his or her native or home language before being transferred to mainstream English-only classes. Colin Baker of the University of Wales, who has done an extensive review of studies that measure the effectiveness of bilingual education, calls such programs “stronger forms of bilingual education.”
To advocates, quality bilingual education further requires welltrained, accredited bilingual teachers who effectively take charge of their classes. Finally, supporters of bilingual education maintain that effective native-language instruction requires parents’ consent and participation, low teacher-student ratios, adequate school facilities, administrative support, and other enabling factors.
The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), a major advocacy organization, admits there are existing bilingual education programs that do not meet the above requirements. James J. Lyons, former NABE executive director, mentions a few of them:
Some are bilingual in name only, staffed by monolingual English-speaking teachers with no professional preparation. . . . In a few instances, students have been assigned to bilingual education on the basis of an educationally irrelevant criterion such as surname. . . . In some localities, LEP [limited English proficient] students have been assigned to bilingual-education programs without the informed consent and choice of their parents.
Lyons argues that the existence of such malpractices does not warrant the elimination of a whole range of effective programs and the wholesale dismissal of the bilingual education policy.
What the critics say
Critics of bilingual education maintain that the best way of teaching English to non-English speakers is not to instruct them in their home language but instead to immerse them in English. They often look to Canadian total French immersion, the approach adopted by Montreal, Canada, in teaching French to English-speaking, middle-class children. Under this program, native-English speakers start school entirely in French, with English introduced gradually. By the end of elementary school, most students become fluent in French, exhibit competence in English, and do well academically. The approach, which gained instant popularity, spread all throughout Canada and has become a model for other countries.
Critics of bilingual education in the United States find fault with the lengthy transition period during which Spanish speakers are immersed in their mother tongue before they move to the mainstream classes where they start learning English. They say that under established rules, the transition should only take three or four years, but that this rarely happens; in many cases, children stay with the mother tongue up to seven years, which, critics maintain, amounts to wasted time and lost opportunity.
Opponents also point out the lack of bilingual teachers nationwide, which renders existing bilingual programs questionable. Susan Headden, writing in U.S. News & World Report, comments, “Poorly trained teachers further complicate the picture. . . . The paucity of qualified candidates has forced desperate superintendents to waive some credentialing requirements and recruit instructors from abroad. The result is teachers who themselves struggle with English.”
Most importantly, critics of bilingual education attribute much of the 30 percent high-school dropout rate among Hispanic children to their confinement to Spanish-only classrooms. They observe that the dropout rate is highest among ethnic groups, and that it has not decreased after many years of implementing bilingual instruction.
California’s Proposition 227
It was in reaction to these deficiencies that Proposition 227 was introduced in California in 1998. The initiative, which aimed to drastically restrict bilingual education in public schools and promote English-only instruction instead, was spearheaded by Ron C. Unz, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Unz believes that English is vital to scholastic achievement, economic success, the speedy integration of immigrants into society, and the preservation of national unity. Californians approved Proposition 227 with a 61 percent vote. According to a report by Kathleen Wilson and Jean Cowden Moore in the Ventura County Star, since the passage of Proposition 227 local school districts in California have reduced the number of students who are learning in Spanish to just 11 percent, down by almost twothirds from 1997.
After his initiative was passed, Unz went on to spearhead a campaign called “English for the Children,” which aims to make English the sole medium of instruction in public schools. Unz’s campaign has won a few victories outside of California. Denver and Chicago have increased the amount of English instruction and limited TBE programs to three years. In 2000 Arizona, inspired by California’s example and helped by Unz’s resources, ended bilingual education. In 2002 Massachusetts approved a similar initiative against bilingual education. On the national level, various bills have been, albeit unsuccessfully, introduced in Congress either to end, reform, or restrict the federal role in bilingual education.
Indefinite research leads to politicization
With restraints on bilingual education gaining momentum, the debate has become more intense. In the above-mentioned states that have legislated on the issue, both the pro-bilingual education camp and the pro- English camp have wooed politicians and advocacy organizations and raised large sums of money to support their cause.
Listening to the arguments of the two sides, it is easy to see that both have some valid points. However, research on the effectiveness of bilingual education, which should provide objective evidence to decide the issue, has not clearly determined which approaches work best. The relevant research over the past twenty years has been ambivalent: There is a substantial body of research that points to bilingual education’s effectiveness, but there is also evidence indicating that English immersion is effective and that TBE programs may inhibit scholastic achievement. Professor of education Colin Baker attributes the contradictory research to the differing political agendas of those who favor and oppose bilingual education, which may influence the work of research institutions and individual researchers. Richard Rothstein, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., attributes the mixed results to the difficulty in measuring school achievement and isolating the individual factors that lead to it.
Without a final word on the subject, the debate between advocates and critics of bilingual education has become politicized. Many times, discussions have been conducted under the sponsorship of special-interest groups. Often, decisions have been made depending on who is in power in Washington, in the state capital, or the district. Bilingual education has been discussed alongside such volatile issues as nationalism, racism, immigration, and adoption of English as the official language of the United States as well as minority rights, cultural diversity, and the goals of education itself.
Lobby groups and ethnic activists
Many supporters of bilingual education view the opposition to it as part of a nationwide movement to make English the official language of the United States and to restrict the use of ethnic languages. Advocates name two major organizations as the nemesis of bilingual education—U.S. English and English First—both of which advocate for the legislation of English as a national language and the adoption of government limits on the use of other languages.
U.S. English was founded by [U.S. former] Senator S.I. Hayakawa [of California] in 1983 to push for a constitutional amendment to make English the official language on both federal and state levels. However, critics of U.S. English view it as a racist lobby that aims to ban the use of ethnic languages. Pro-bilingual supporters note that two organizations funded by U.S. English—the Learning English Advocates Drive and Research in English Acquisition and Development—are at the forefront of campaigns seeking to reduce the scope of bilingual education in schools.
Commenting on the profile and history of U.S. English, journalist Andrew Phillips says the organization ran into controversy in the late 1980s after some leaders complained publicly that “Hispanics were breeding too fast.” As a result, the organization was discredited and its officials were accused of racism. U.S. English claims it recovered in the late 1990s when its membership rose to 1 million and it had an annual budget of $15 million.
The second organization that supports English as an official national language is English First. Supporters of bilingual education often connect the organization to right-wing politicians, pointing out that it was once headed by Larry Pratt, founder and head of the lobby group Gun Owners of America, who later became adviser to former presidential contender Pat Buchanan.
Countercharges from official-English groups English-only proponents hurl back to the other camp similar charges, claiming that left-wing cultural activists are using the bilingual education debate to promote the Spanish language and Hispanic culture. Critics also argue that educators may wrongly support bilingual education in order to preserve the jobs of bilingual instructors. As John R. Silber, chancellor of Boston University, declares,
Bilingual education is the interest of only two groups: one, bilingual educators, who face unemployment from the judgment of the people, and two, ethnic nationalists, for whom the preservation and exaltation of immigrant language at the expense of English gives important political advantages to their English-speaking spokesmen. We must stop sacrificing the interests of our children to these two groups.
Ron C. Unz attributes the staying power of bilingual education to vested interests and what he calls the silence of the media. He says,
In this vast cavern of embarrassed media silence, the views of the overwhelmingly many were easily shouted down by the voices of the tiny but committed few. The story of the growth and entrenchment of these bilingual education programs constitutes a truly impressive and most remarkable illustration of the powerful dynamics of special-interest group politics.
In 1999 English-only proponents and the official-English movement gained a major victory when the House of Representatives finally passed a law mandating English as the country’s official language. It was on this occasion that House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared, “Without English as a common language, there is no [American] civilization.” The Senate, however, has not passed the legislation.
The claims and counterclaims, the accusations and rebuttals, are repeated again and again in various forums and media. In the absence of definitive research on whether bilingual education helps or harms students, the politicization of the bilingual education debate will certainly continue. With more state ballot initiatives on the issue expected to gain momentum in the coming years, the debate over bilingual education versus English-only classrooms will be hugging the headlines for the foreseeable future.