Bilingual Success

Why two-language education is critical for Latinos

When Roberto Feliz’s family came to the United States from the Dominican Republic, he knew only a few words of English. “I couldn’t understand anything,” says Roberto, who hid from his teachers, came home in tears, and even thought about dropping out of school. Education became a nightmare. Then Mrs. Malave, a bilingual educator, began to work with him to improve his English while teaching him math and science in his native Spanish. “She helped me stay smart, while teaching me English.” Given the chance to demonstrate his ability, Roberto regained confidence and began to succeed in school. Today, he is a prominent doctor, runs his own clinic, and works with several hospitals. And, every day, he uses the language and academic skills he acquired through bilingual education to treat his patients.

Roberto’s is just one of countless success stories. Research has shown that bilingual education is the most effective way both to teach children English and ensure that they succeed academically. But, while much attention has been focused on the speed with which programs help children acquire English proficiency, little has been said about the most important factors in this debate–equity and achievement for all children. It is in this framework–of access to real academic achievement–mat bilingual education best shows its greatest advantage over English Only instruction.

This is of particular relevance to Arizona residents, who this month are considering a state ballot measure that would mandate English immersion as the only method of instruction for students who have limited proficiency of English. Less than 7 percent of the state’s English-language learners are in bilingual programs, and–according to the Arizona State Department of Education–these same students have consistently scored higher in English-language reading tests than their limited-English proficient peers who are enrolled in English Only programs.

At best, Arizona’s proposed educational mandate presents a troublesome solution to the achievement gap of students with limited English-language proficiency in the state. Even opponents of bilingual education seem to understand this, as evidenced by the remarks of Boston University’s Professor Charles Glenn, a critic of bilingual instruction.

Glenn notes that “state and federal programs supporting the education of language minority students should not prescribe teaching methods or the language used, but should hold schools accountable for the measurable, steady progress of these students in all required academic subjects.”

Certainly prescribing English Only instruction as a sole educational option is a mistake by any measure–especially when the method has already proven a failure. During much of the twentieth century, English immersion was the norm in many American schools. Such was the case in Tucson from 1915 to 1965, where a 50-year-long attempt at implementing English Only instruction yielded such dismal results for language-minorities as a Hispanic dropout rate that topped 60 percent.

Places like Calexico, California, implemented bilingual education programs to address these very problems. Today, Calexico’s dropout rates are less than half the state average, and college acceptance rates are well over 90%. In Texas, El Paso’s system-wide bilingual education programs have helped raise student scores from the lowest in the state to among the highest in the nation. And, as bilingual educators are recruited to serve a growing number of English-language learners–often in such unlikely places as Georgia, New Hampshire, and Iowa–the examples of successful world-class bilingual instruction continue to accumulate.

Like all other good education programs that strive to meet the changing needs of students, bilingual education must undergo regular targeted reform. And responsible research must be at the core of that reform. This was made painfully clear by a misleading analysis of California’s Scholastic Achievement Test scores issued by bilingual education detractors. The analysis, which arrived at erroneous conclusions about bilingual education, were widely accepted and reported as fact, but it failed to control for such key factors as class-size reduction and the level of preparation of test-takers. It also selectively ignored schools whose bilingual students outperformed peers on English Only campuses. In short, it made popular fact of irresponsible myth. This and other ill-conceived attempts at addressing the educational needs of English-language learners do little more than contribute to the politicization of education, and keep Americans from focusing on meaningful reform that includes well-trained teachers, accountability, and high standards.

America’s rapidly changing demographics point to a growing need for bilingual education, and responsible research will no doubt continue to strengthen this method of instruction. Such is the case with all high quality programs. After all, sound research is at the core of bilingual programs such as the one Roberto Feliz attended. His success will come as no surprise to parents who understand that clear communication among families, students, and teachers is inherent in good education. Our nation should pay close attention to these facts. The future of millions of American children whose first language is not English clearly depends on it.

Delia Pompa is the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

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