Retrospective: ‘The Emerging Politics of Language’

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 10, 2009 2 min read
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Twenty-five years ago this week, Education Week published several stories about the rise of bilingual education in this country and how, even then, the educational method was running into political problems. The lead story was “Law and Policy in the Lau Era: The Emerging Politics of Language,” which is not available online. The stories were part of a series on language policy and marked a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court had decided in Lau v. Nichols that the San Francisco school system was violating the civil rights of Chinese-speaking students by not helping them learn English. I learned from the article that the case received only a one-sentence mention in The New York Times and was ignored by most other newspapers.

Interestingly, according to the EdWeek article, it was former president Richard M. Nixon’s administration that pushed for use of bilingual instruction as a legal remedy in cases where school districts were found not to be adequately educating students with limited proficiency in English. Nixon, of course, was a Republican, and it’s interesting that a Republican administration had a role in expanding bilingual education, which now tends to be favored more by Democrats than the GOP. As part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1974, which required school districts that received funds under the act to provide bilingual education. It was signed into law by Republican Gerald R. Ford, days after he assumed the presidency after Nixon’s resignation. Here’s an excerpt that tells about the political support for bilingual education in 1974.

By 1974, bilingual education had a well-organized, vocal constituency and a set of supporters on both sides of the Congress in powerful positions," recalls Gary L. Aldridge, a legislative aide to Senator Cranston who helped draft the 1974 reauthorization. "Hispanics were very, very active and persuasive in promoting bilingual and bicultural programs."

But by 1984, when EdWeek ran the series of articles about language instruction in schools, support for bilingual education from the federal government was eroding. (A couple of the stories are online. See “Bilingual Education in the 1980’s: Basic Questions Remain Unresolved,” and “Research and the Quest for ‘Effective’ Bilingual Methods.”) Then-President Ronald Reagan had said in a 1981 speech that it was “absolutely wrong and against American concepts to have a bilingual-education program that is now openly, admittedly dedicated to preserving [students’] native language and never getting them adequate in English so they can go out into the job market and participate.” In 1984, in an interview with a magazine, Reagan didn’t totally disregard bilingual education but mentioned English as a second language and immersion as examples of alternatives.

Twenty-five years later, the nation has just had a president for eight years who was practically silent on the issue of whether bilingual education is a viable option for English-language learners, though several meta-analyses of research on ELLs do give an edge to the method over English-only methods. But President Barack Obama has said in his policy agenda that he supports “transitional bilingual education.”

We’re waiting to see if the current administration will take full advantage of opportunities to publicly discuss how native-language instruction can be a benefit for ELLs. Or will it, like the Bush administration, steer away from making statements about the effectiveness of different approaches for teaching ELLs.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.