Special Report
English-Language Learners

Bilingual Education: Introduction

By James Crawford — April 01, 1987 5 min read
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Two decades after its revival in the United States, bilingual education has established itself as a valid pedagogical approach.

Among educators, the word is getting out: Children who begin school without English can thrive in well-designed programs that build on their native-language skills. Increasingly, researchers are documenting the benefits of bilingual methodologies in promoting academic development at no cost to the acquisition of English.

Politically, however, bilingual education has never been more vulnerable. It is a prime target of the burgeoning “English-only” movement, which opposes bilingual services on ideological grounds, arguing that they impede the assimilation of new immigrants and threaten to divide Americans along language lines.

Last fall, the broad appeal of such arguments was demonstrated in California, where 73 percent of the voters approved a state constitutional amendment declaring English the official language. The measure could imperil an extension of California’s bilingual-education law, now under consideration in the state legislature.

Meanwhile, the nation’s top education official, Secretary William J. Bennett, is leading an assault on the cornerstone of the Bilingual Education Act—the requirement that most federal grants to support the instruction of limited-English-proficient children go to programs making some use of the students’ native tongue.

Despite expenditures of $1.8 billion under the law since 1969, Mr. Bennett says, “we have no evidence that the children we sought to help ... have benefited.” He insists that research remains inconclusive on whether bilingual education works, and he voices his own skepticism: “This educational method imposed from Washington [has done] very little to help students learn English.”

Secretary Bennett is pressing the Congress to allow unrestricted federal funding for such English-only alternatives as “structured immersion,” an approach that he says “shows great promise.”

Never has the breach been wider between the U.S. Education Department and professionals in the field of bilingual education. Bilingual researchers and practitioners accuse Mr. Bennett of ignoring a growing body of evidence documenting bilingual program successes. They note that the Secretary can point to only one published study on structured immersion in the United States.

Bilingual-education advocates acknowledge that there are plenty of weak bilingual programs. But they say it is unfair to judge the concept of native-language instruction with studies that fail to differentiate among a diversity of educational treatments labeled “bilingual.”

The enormous variation in the quality of bilingual-education programs, in their financial and administrative support, in the availability of qualified staff, and in teaching methodologies was evident in a recent California survey. The study found that teachers were using only English in nearly half of the so-called “bilingual classrooms” observed.

While many bilingual programs hurry to “mainstream” children as quickly as possible into regular classrooms, other approaches—about 15 percent in a national survey—strive to maintain, rather than to replace, the students’ native language. Paradoxically, programs that stress the development of first-language skills have produced some of the best results in teaching English.

Thanks to advances over the past decade in linguistics and cognitive psychology, bilingual educators know a lot more about how children learn a second language and about how language development affects overall academic achievement.

This emerging theory has helped, for example, to shape an innovative bilingual program at the Rockwood School in Calexico, Calif. Ninety-five percent of the students arrive at the school, just across the border from Mexico, speaking little or no English, and nearly 80 percent come from homes receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Before the new bilingual curriculum was introduced in 1982, achievement levels at Rockwood were the lowest among the district’s five elementary schools. Three years later, they were the highest. Today, Rockwood’s 6th graders are scoring near state norms in English language arts and above the norms in mathematics.

As immigration swells the number of limited-English-proficient children in the schools, the need for such programs is increasing. California, one of the few states to monitor its LEP population, now has 567,000 limited-English-proficient students—up 143 percent since 1977.

Asians and Hispanics, who together represented 7.9 percent of the U.S. population in 1980, are expected to make up 12.3 percent by the year 2000 and 18.1 percent by 2030, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Because they tend to be younger than other ethnic groups, on average, the new immigrants’ impact on the schools will be even larger.

And educators note that not only immigrants need special language services. Large percentages of Puerto Rican and American Indian children have limited English skills, as do many Mexican-American and Chinese-American children who were born in the United States.

Nevertheless, strong feelings about the immigrant experience—about what it means to be an American—are bound up with popular attitudes toward bilingual education. For some, the very idea of bilingual education is an insult to immigrant forebears, who are remembered as having proudly shed their native tongues to become Americans.

Skeptics often argue that millions of language minorities have not only learned English, but have succeeded with bilingual education. And writers such as Richard Rodriguez, author of Hunger of Memory, express gratitude for having been forced to learn English through the “submersion” method.

But they are the exceptions, argues Stephen D. Krashen, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California. “There’s a selection bias,” he says. “We hear from those who’ve made it. We haven’t heard from those who didn’t. They don’t write books and they don’t write letters to the editor, because they can’t.”

The widely accepted immigrant myth—the bootstraps rise to success and its “sink or swim” imperative of learning English—features no special help to ease the transition of today’s newcomers.

But in fact, historians say, a diversity of ethnic cultures and languages has flourished in North American since before the Pilgrims landed, and struggles to preserve them have spanned much of the nation’s history.

In this tradition, bilingual education has played a central role.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education: Language, Learning, and Politics


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