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Bilingual Education Works

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By Gloria Zamora

I began my teaching career in the west side barrios of San Antonio more than 30 years ago. I was full of enthusiasm and proud in the 1950s. In those years, 80 percent of us failed to graduate from high school, let alone attend college.

I began my bilingual-education teaching career without curriculum materials or language tests. I had no training and little research to guide me. But these obstacles were nothing compared with what our students had endured for years: low achievement levels, repeated failures, damaged self-concept, and very high dropout rates.

Since those early years, bilingual education has made great strides. Testing instruments now exist to help teachers place students correctly. An abundance of excellent curriculum materials are now available. Educators have preservice and inservice staff-development programs. Best of all, there is now a wealth of research from around the world on first- and second-language acquisition to guide educators. This research has helped greatly refine the implementation of bilingual education.

Much has been learned since the early days. We know now that instruction in the native language does not retard the acquisition of English; in fact, a solid foundation in the native language is critical for the acquisition of English and the development of cognitive skills. We have learned that becoming proficient in English (a stated goal of bilingual education) is not easy. Students in both bilingual and English-immersion programs require approximately five to seven years of English-as-a-secondlanguage instruction to acquire full proficiency in English. In other words, neither bilingual education nor full immersion offers a quick fix.

We have also learned that the most successful bilingualeducation programs all over the world are "additive'': they seek to help students add a new language without sacrificing their native tongue. This approach produces much better results than "subtractive'' bilingual education, which replaces the students' native language with another.

Unfortunately, some things have not changed in bilingual education. There are still schools that pay lip service to it and merely implement token programs. Colleges and universities don't prepare a sufficient number of bilingual teachers. Some educators fail to understand bilingual education and therefore fail to implement it properly. Others, because of their negative attitudes toward other languages and cultures, continue to make it difficult for limited-English-proficient students to learn. There are even those who still see bilingual education as somehow "un-American.''

Over the course of my more than 20 years of involvement as a bilingual-education teacher, supervisor, director, researcher, trainer, curriculum developer, and policymaker, I have learned one very important thing: Wellplanned and properly implemented bilingual-education programs do work, and work well. Interestingly, I have observed that the greatest impediment to bilingual education is not that students get too much instruction in their native language, but that they do not get enough! Another tremendous problem lies in the way ESL programs are carried out by some teachers and schools. Among the worst are the "pull-out'' programs, where there is little, if any, coordination between the ESL teacher and the classroom teacher. I am not surprised when students in such programs fail to learn English.

These and many other problems cannot be attributed to bilingual education, but rather to the decisions made by the people who implement the program. The failures of bilingual education are, therefore, not unlike our failures in teaching science, reading, and math. Quality education requires well-prepared teachers with positive attitudes: teachers who respect students, understand what good teaching entails, and know how to engage in interactive instruction. Teachers must be willing to involve parents meaningfully and use curriculum materials that are challenging. Children all over the world are successful in learning more than one language. I refuse to believe that America's students are less capable or our teachers less competent.

There are obviously cases where bilingual education cannot be implemented. In Texas, for example, bilingual education is required only when there are at least 20 students who speak the same foreign language in one grade level in a particular school district. However, all LEP students in Texas must receive ESL instruction daily. Reasonable guidelines such as these can be developed by all school districts to ensure that the needs of LEP students are not neglected.

Everyone should clearly understand that the goal of bilingual education is to develop English-proficient, academically competent, socially responsible students who can contribute to our society. We want them to be proud Americans, secure in their bicultural and bilingual identities. We want to preserve, not waste, the linguistic talents of our language-minority students. We want to enrich the human resources of this country.

As a teacher, I have always believed that my responsibility is to prepare students to meet the demands of the future. I believe our future world will be dependent upon a global economy, and competition in that economy will require multilingual capacity. Bilingual-education programs can help meet present and future linguistic demands. The United States should be doing everything possible to maximize its linguistic potential.

The day I decided to close my door, break the Texas law, and provide my students understandable instruction was one I shall never forget. That young and more than a little frightened teacher never dreamed that she was at the vanguard of a great American educational movement.

Gloria Zamora, former president of the National Association For Bilingual Education, is a bilingual-education consultant and the editorial director of Santillana Publishing Co. in San Antonio.

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