English-Language Learners

Bilingual Education in the 1980’s:Basic Questions Remain Unresolved

By Eileen White — February 08, 1984 8 min read
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A decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lau v. Nichols, those who study or make policy for the field of bilingual education concur that many of what they term “the basic issues” remain unresolved. Disagreements persist, they suggest, over what constitutes “bilingual education,” whether it works, who needs it and whether those who need it are receiving it, and where the primary responsibility for it should be within the educational system. (See accompanying story on page 18.)


Among the most divisive issues is that of need: How many children require special services, and on what basis should they be counted?

Nearly three-fourths of the students currently being served in bilingual-education programs were born in the United States, according to federal statistics. Robert Rossier, a retired English-as-a-second-language teacher from Los Angeles who recently expressed his opposition to native-language instruction in a national public-policy journal, maintains that some of those children are moved into bilingual education simply because of their Hispanic surnames.

“Third-generation Mexican-American, English-speaking children do not belong in bilingual programs,” he says. Mr. Rossier says he has a 6-year-old niece who fits that description. “She still has some problems with English, but far more with Spanish. They want to put her in bilingual education, and we’re fighting it,” he says.

On the other hand, Lori S. Orum, an official of the National Council of La Raza, an organization representing community-based Hispanic groups, says, “There are thousands of kids of limited-English proficieny who are not getting any help at all; they’re just sitting in classrooms looking at the walls.”

Federal education officials say they are uncertain how many such children are included today in bilingual-education programs. “There are kids who aren’t served who should be, and there are kids who will be included who should have been excluded,” says Keith Baker of the U.S. Education Department’s planning office. “Schools have as big a problem [matching] kids with services as we have identifying them.”


The problem of identifying, and thus developing coherent statistical measures of children who need bilingual services has confounded those involved in bilingual education since its inception, Mr. Baker and others note. The central problem, according to both federal officials and bilingual-education advocates, is the lack of agreement on what constitutes “limited English proficiency.”

The 1982 Education Department report to the Congress on bilingual education says that “only about a third of the 2.4 million children, aged 5 to 14, identified in a 1978 study are receiving” some type of special language education. The study also identified a 3.6-million “potential target group,” more than half of whom speak English, but are limited in their English usage.

Those statistics have been cited in speeches, reports, and Congressional testimony. Yet Jesse Soriano, who heads the bilingual-education program in the Reagan Administration, refutes those figures. “The problem is not that widespread. I don’t be-lieve that two-thirds [of the needy children] are being overlooked,” he says.

He points to a re-analysis of the 1978 data, completed in 1981, that says the 2.4-million figure includes “two categories of children who may not in fact require bilingual services--those who scored [poorly on an] English-proficiency test but may not be dependent on another language, and those not enrolled in school.”

The report said the 2.4-million figure represents"children from homes where English is not the only language spoken.” If children who not only came from non-English-speaking families but who themselves had a “usual language” other than English and attended school were counted, the figure would be only 1.3 million, the study concluded.

Other federal sources note that the number of children participating in bilingual-education programs cannot be compared with the number of limited-English-proficient children nationally, because federal law permits up to 40 percent of the students in a bilingual-education class to be from English-language backgrounds.

“If you are for bilingual education, the numbers are high; if not, they are lower,” says a federal official, who asked not to be identified.

And Mr. Soriano concedes that “the problems are not related to numbers” but to policy.

But because the dimensions of the federal role in bilingual education now depend in part on how many needy children exist, the inability of researchers, policymakers, and advocates to agree on “the numbers” has led to statistics such as these from a federally funded report by rmc Research Corporation, a California research company:

“The need for newly qualified bilingual-education teachers depends heavily on the assumptions one makes and the policy options one selects. ... The range in need estimates is from 29,400 to 140,200.” (Institutions of higher education currently turn out fewer than 4,000 bilingual education teachers per year, according to the report.)


Bilingual-education programs, although they enroll children who speak many languages, primarily serve Spanish-speaking students. Eighty percent of the students served in federally funded programs, for example, are estimated to be from Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

The number of school-age children from such backgrounds is growing, due both to Hispanics’ high birth rate and their relative youth compared to white Americans. (The average age of Hispanic Americans is 22; it is 30 for Anglos.)

Most of the nation’s newcomers are also Spanish-speaking. Nearly half of the legal immigrants during the 1970’s came from Latin America, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that half of all the illegal aliens who enter the country are Mexicans. School-age children in this latter group cannot be denied a free public education, the Supreme Court ruled in a 1982 decision, Plyler v. Doe.

As a consequence of both high birth rates and immigration, the Hispanic population of the nation grew by an average of 3.8 percent each year between 1970 and 1980, from 9.1 million to 14.6 million, according to U.S. Census data, while the annual growth rate of the U.S. population as a whole was 1.1 percent. By some estimates, the number of school-age Spanish-speaking children in the country will increase by 50 percent by the year 2000; the total number of school-age children is projected to increase by 16 percent.


“The Condition of Education for Hispanic Americans,” a 1980 government report, gave the schooling for Hispanic children a grade of “unsatisfactory.”

“Hispanic children enroll in school at rates lower than those for non-Hispanic students, they fall behind their classmates in progressing through school, and their attrition rates are higher than those of non-Hispanic students,” the report said. Gary Orfield, a desegregation expert at the University of Chicago, also reported last year that Hispanic students are increasingly likely to attend racially isolated schools, especially in large cities and in the states of Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

The continuing problems of Hispanic students have led to a public perception that bilingual education is not working, according to bilingual-education advocates. But they respond that the program is too new and that too little is known about it.

Says James Lyons, general counsel to the National Association for Bilingual Education, “We don’t know who is being taught, who is teaching, what kind of materials they’re using, how they are spending classroom time.”

Moreover, according to participants in a recent meeting on educating Hispanic children, judging the efficacy of bilingual education is complicated by the possibility that poverty and discrimination may be equally serious barriers to academic achievement as language problems.

Because “bilingual education came out of the civil-rights movement,’' says Mr. Soriano, “There was an assumption in the early 60’s that if a Hispanic youngster was doing poorly in school, it was a language problem. That premise is questionable.”

Such variables as the quality of the school, the educational attainment of parents, and the presence of books in the home are believed by some researchers to be factors that--along with language dominance--influence academic achievement.


A recent opinion survey about bilingual education suggests that the goals and purposes of bilingual education remain little understood by the American public. The telephone survey was conducted by researchers at Columbia University with a scientific sampling of adults. The poll reported that 63 percent said they supported some type of bilingual-education program. But a greater percentage, 69 percent, opposed extending bilingual instruction to children who speak Spanish at home but are familiar with English from other sources. (Estimates vary, but an Education Department study says as many as half of all limited-English-proficient children know some English.)

And although 40 percent of the Hispanics surveyed favored bilingual education as a way to preserve their cultural heritage, most of the non-Hispanics who favored the program did so for “pragmatic educational’’ reasons.

“In many ways, says Mr. Alvarado of New York City, “bilingual education is no different than education as a whole. It suffers from all the pitfalls that success anywhere else in education depends on--people, leadership, programs, politics, curriculum, funding, guidance.

“To judge the concept as anything but a confluence of all those factors just does not make any sense.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1984 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education in the 1980’s:Basic Questions Remain Unresolved


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