The Controversy Over Bilingual Education In America's Schools

One language or two

IN Fillmore, Calif., a farming area 60 miles north of Los Angeles, nearly 100 parents of English-speaking children are embroiled in a dispute with the Fillmore Unified School District over what language will be used to teach their children. School officials, who are reluctant to isolate Spanish-speaking children, have assigned most students to bilingual classes. The parents say their children have a right to be taught in English. ”I don’t deny my heritage as a Mexican-American, but the reason that we have achieved what we have in this country is that we speak English,” said Arthur M. Vasquez, a contractor with two daughters in the Fillmore schools.

The picture of a bilingual Mexican-American fighting for his children’s right to learn in English is symbolic of the complexities, indeed, the paradoxes, that surround the subject of bilingual education in American public schools. With the possible exception of desegregation, no subject has aroused the passion that characterizes debate over how schools should go about educating students with ”limited English proficiency.”

A concept that emerged in the 1960’s as a teaching device for a particular group of disadvantaged students has taken on a political, social and even economic life of its own. Proponents of bilingual education say that the educational needs – not to say the self-esteem – of children with mother tongues other than English requires that they be taught in their native languages, at least until they have a chance to learn English. Federally supported programs now operate in an estimated 125 languages, from Spanish and Haitian Creole to Hmong, Khmer, Chamorro and Ulithian.

Critics, however, charge that while that sounds fine in theory, it does not always work out that way. Students in bilingual-education classes, they charge, have become the pawns of educators and politicians seeking to bolster their own positions through appeals to ethnic pride. They cite ”horror stories” of students languishing in bilingual programs for four or five years and English-speaking students whose real need is remedial help in their native language being forced to learn in a strange tongue.

Running through these issues are fundamental questions that go well beyond the educational task of public schools to the kind of nation they serve. ”Bilingual education has become a code word to larger social tensions in the nation as a whole,” said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ”Schools are the battleground for the issue of whether the nation can once again embrace a new group of immigrants whose native language is not English.”

Until quite recently public education in the United States was ”monolingual.” English was the universal language of instruction, and even newly arrived immigrants were expected to use their new national tongue on a ”sink or swim” basis. Many swam, and many also sank.

The concept of ”bilingual” education – that is, teaching in two languages – emerged out of the civil rights and antipoverty movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was a time when educators and political leaders were developing programs of ”compensatory” education, or special help for poor or other students judged to have special needs.

Schools use three basic approaches to teach core academic subjects to non-English-speaking students. ”Transitional bilingual education,” the most common, employs bilingual teachers who begin with instruction in the native language and eventually wean them onto English. ”Maintenance” programs also use bilingual teachers, but the goal is continual instruction in both tongues.

”English as a Second Language” programs offer instruction in English using teachers who may or may not know the student’s native language but who are sensitive to the needs of students struggling to learn in a strange tongue. A fourth method, ”immersion,” in which students are simply thrown into English-speaking classes, is illegal under the Lau decision.

The use of bilingual teachers to provide instruction in Spanish and other languages as well as English was seen as a way to help students whose progress was limited by lack of knowledge of English.

In 1968 Congress passed the new Bilingual Education Act – technically Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – that provided Federal support for ”new and imaginative” efforts to provide help for students of ”limited English proficiency.” The size of the program has grown from $7.5 million distributed to 76 school districts in 1969-70 to $139 million in 581 districts last year.

By the mid-1970’s ethnic consciousness was on the rise in the United States, and the Federal legislation underwent considerable evolution, partly as a result of pressure from Hispanic and other civil rights and interest groups. In 1974, Congress specified that the Federal money could be spent only on programs that made use of native language instruction. Schools could no longer spend their grants on ”English as a Second Language” or other approaches in which the primary language of instruction was English. The purpose of the act was also broadened to include not only the eventual ”transition” of students to English but also the promoting of knowledge of students’ native languages and cultures. The Department of Education subsequently obtained 500 consent decrees from school districts across the nation requiring bilingual instruction.

This legislative evolution was accompanied by a judicial one. In 1974, in Lau v. Nichols, the United States Supreme Court ruled that school officials in San Francisco were required under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to offer special help to non-English-speaking Chinese students. Unlike the amended legislation, the court did not specify a particular educational technique. ”Teaching English to the students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak the language is one choice,” it said. ”Giving instruction to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others.”

By the time the Reagan Administration took office, however, a reaction had begun to set in. Critics charged that good intentions had gone awry, citing anecdotes such as Vietnamese immigrants being put into classes where the teaching language was Spanish. In last year’s reauthorization of the Bilingual Education Act, Congress softened the bilingual requirements slightly, giving the Department of Education permission to distribute up to 4 percent of bilingual funds to districts using ”alternative instructional methods,” i.e. instruction in English.

Vigorous Disagreements

Proponents and critics disagree vigorously about the successes and failures of bilingual education. The Department of Education told Congress in 1982 that ”only about a third” of the estimated 2.4 million ”limited English proficient” children in the nation are being served. In a report last month, the Educational Priorities Panel calculated that 44,000 of the 114,000 eligible students in New York City are getting none of the help the law requires. It called the situation a ”flagrant violation of both law and human rights.”

Both sides agree that Hispanic students have much higher dropout rates than whites and other ethnic groups, but they disagree on what this means. Critics of bilingual education say that this shows that it has been a failure, while proponents cite it as an argument for putting more money into the program.

The debate over bilingual education would be helped if educational researchers could demonstrate the relative effects of various methods. Unfortunately, the research that does exist is contradictory. For this reason the Department of Education has begun putting pressure on Congress to eliminate the 4 percent ceiling on methods other than ”transitional bilingual education,” and it has garnered widespread support for the idea. If Congress were to pass a law mandating the ”phonics” approach to reading or the ”new math” in mathematics, said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, ”there would be almost universal opposition.”

The Department has also indicated that it will use its grant-approving muscle to make sure that students in bilingual programs do indeed make the ”transition” to English. ”We’re sending the message that there have to be incredibly large amounts of the home language,” said Gary Bauer, the Under Secretary.

Bilingual-education forces, however, charge that the Administration’s proposals are a smokescreen for its real goal of cutting back on bilingual education. ”They hope to use the Bilingual Education Act to promote monolingual education,” said James Lyons, legislative counsel to the National Association for Bilingual Education, an advocacy group.

With the birthrates of Hispanic and other ethnic groups served by bilingual programs now running considerably higher than those of English-speaking whites, the problems raised by the controversy over bilingual education are likely to intensify rather than diminish, and representatives of both sides are quick to point out that the fundamental issues go well beyond pedagogy.

In an address to a business group in Manhattan six weeks ago, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett argued the Administration’s case for changes in the Bilingual Education Act. ”As fellow citizens,” he said, ”we need a common language. In the United States this language is English. Our common history is written in English. Our common forefathers speak to us, through the ages, in English.”

Not everyone agrees. ”The first university in this Hemisphere was in Mexico in the 1400’s,” said Gene T. Chavez, president of the bilingual education association. ”My ancestry goes back 400 years in the Southwest. My sense of history predates the landing on Plymouth Rock.”

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