Advocates of Bilingual Education Eager to Embrace Obama as Ally

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 18, 2008 6 min read
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Supporters of bilingual education are hoping that the election of Barack Obama as president will lead to a thaw in attitudes toward what they consider a proven educational method that has been ignored—or worse—by the Bush administration.

Advocates are encouraged by the endorsement of bilingual education by President-elect Obama in the recent campaign, and see the pending reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act as a vehicle to change federal testing and other policies they view as hostile to dual-language instruction.

In such a context, presidential support “could make a huge difference in the public perception of the effectiveness of bilingual education,” said Peter Zamora, the regional counsel in Washington for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and an advocate of bilingual education.

“The Bush administration has been loath to get behind bilingual education, largely for political reasons, and not for research-based instructional factors,” he said. “Unfortunately, bilingual education has gotten caught up in the culture wars in ways that obscure best practices for English-language learners.”

Mr. Obama’s education plan—which was posted for months on his Democratic presidential campaign’s Web site but is not on his post-election site—stated that he and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, “support transitional bilingual education and will help limited-English-proficient students get ahead by holding schools accountable for making sure these students complete school.”

In a February debate with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, during the Democratic primary campaign, Mr. Obama said he supported bilingual education as a means to help students with limited proficiency in English learn the language. He added that every student should know two languages, and that he intended to push for more funding for foreign-language programs.

Common Methods for Teaching English-Language Learners:

English immersion: Instruction is entirely in English. Teachers strive to deliver lessons in simplified English so that students learn English and academic subjects.

English as a second language: May be the same as immersion but also may include some support to individuals in their native tongue. Typically, classes are comprised of students who speak many different languages but are not fluent in English. They may attend classes for only a period a day, to work strictly on English skills, or attend for a full day and focus both on academics and English.

Transitional bilingual education: Instruction for some subjects is in the students’ native language but a certain amount of each day is spent on developing English skills. Classes are made up of students who share the same native language.

Two-way bilingual education: Instruction is given in two languages to students, usually in the same classroom, who may be dominant in one language or the other, with the goal of the students’ becoming proficient in both languages. Teachers usually team teach, with each one responsible to teach in only one of the languages. This approach is also sometimes called dual-immersion or dual-language.

Source: EPE Research Center

Mr. Obama has not defined what he means by “transitional bilingual education.” But many education experts believe his position indicates that his administration will give more attention to bilingual education than has President George W. Bush’s administration.

In response to suggestions that the Bush administration has been largely silent on bilingual education, and that NCLB has indirectly hindered the method, Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the department is “by law prohibited from prescribing curriculum or instructional methods.”

She also said the department lets states decide how best to meet goals for students, including English-learners, under the NCLB law.

Bush Stance Defended

Russell Gersten, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, and a skeptic about the effectiveness of bilingual education, sees a less dramatic impact from the turnover in administrations. The Bush administration, he argues, simply took a neutral position on bilingual education.

In 2006, for example, Mr. Gersten headed a panel tapped by the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences to publish a “practice guide” for educating ELLs. He said the panel decided not to address the debate over bilingual education in the guide, but rather to focus on topics that “schools, principals, and teachers would be more interested in.” That included how to carry out programs better and find adequate materials for ELLs, he said.

Kathleen Leos, a former director of the Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition, who held that post for two years before she left it in November 2007, said last week that she never received pressure to avoid the topic of bilingual education.

Ms. Leos believes native-language instruction can play an important role in students’ “language development,” but she said she avoided saying “bilingual education” publicly while she worked for the Education Department. She said it’s a term left over from 30 years ago that has been rendered meaningless.

“I don’t want to get caught up in the old media buzzwords, because we don’t even know what they mean,” she said.

Debate Continues

Some education experts said it would be helpful if Mr. Obama would define what he means by “transitional bilingual education.” (The president-elect’s transition team did not respond to a request for further clarification.)

Generally, though, transitional bilingual education refers to programs in which students are taught some subjects in their native languages while learning English. The goal is to have the children make the transition to English in the early grades, rather than to have them continue to develop their native languages.

Obama on Bilingual Education

Excerpt from the Obama-Biden education plan on the Democratic ticket’s Web site during the presidential-election campaign:

“Obama and Biden support transitional bilingual education and will help limited-English-proficient students get ahead by holding schools accountable for making sure these students complete school.”

Sen. Barack Obama’s comments at a Feb. 21, 2008, debate in Austin, Texas, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton:

“Well, I think it is important that everyone learns English and that we have that process of binding ourselves together as a country. ... [W]hen you start getting into a debate about bilingual education, for example, now, I want to make sure that children who are coming out of Spanish-speaking households had the opportunity to learn and are not falling behind. If bilingual education helps them do that, I want to give them the opportunity. But I also want to make sure that English-speaking children are getting foreign languages because this world is becoming more interdependent and part of the process of America’s continued leadership in the world is going to be our capacity to communicate across boundaries, across borders, and that’s something frankly where we’ve fallen behind.

One of the failures of No Child Left Behind, a law that I think a lot of local and state officials have been troubled by, is that it is so narrowly focused on standardized tests that it has pushed out a lot of important learning that needs to take place. And foreign languages is one of those areas that I think has been neglected. I want to put more resources into it.”

Most ELL students nationwide are not taught with bilingual methods. And in three states—Arizona, California, and Massachusetts—transitional bilingual education has fallen out of favor, with voters’ passage of state ballot measures to curtail bilingual education. But it’s a common method in a number of states that require bilingual education, including Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas.

Transitional bilingual education is no longer the favored method of some advocates of bilingual education, such as Julie Schiola, the principal for the Harris Bilingual School in Fort Collins, Colo. The school teaches 350 students in grades K-6 with a two-way immersion approach, in which native speakers of Spanish and of English learn both languages in the same classroom.

Ms. Schiola taught in a transitional bilingual program for seven years. She sees two-way immersion as superior because it enables students to become truly bilingual. Her school has a 50-student waiting list.

Stephen D. Krashen, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and a bilingual education advocate, said he hopes the new president also will promote methods that let students continue to develop their native languages after they learn English.

Indirect Influence

The federal government can play an important role in paying for research on ELLs and making educators aware of promising methods through conferences and speeches, experts say.

In the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, Mr. Obama has the chance to ask Congress to include symbolic language that would honor students’ native languages as a valuable resource, something that is missing from the current law, said Claude Goldenberg, an education professor at Stanford University.

Others said Mr. Obama should press Congress to change testing requirements to be more friendly toward bilingual education.

While the law permits states to test students in their native languages for several years, most states have not developed such tests.

Mr. Krashen, who opposes the NCLB law in general, nonetheless said the law would be improved if it delayed the testing of ELLs until the 5th or 6th grade, the grade levels in which students in bilingual education programs usually show they are competent in two languages.

Mr. Zamora said the reauthorized law should require states to create native-language tests, though federal law should not supersede state laws that already mandate testing in English.

Mr. Gersten said the NCLB accountability provisions have spurred educators to focus more on instructional issues for ELLs, and may have set the stage for productive discussions about bilingual education models.

“It’s a different professional culture now than 10 years ago,” said Mr. Gersten. “The dialogue could be different. It could be better.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Advocates of Bilingual Education Eager to Embrace Obama as Ally


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