Debating the Efficacy of Bilingual Education Programs

The debate on how best to educate ELL students continues, with little promise of a clear-cut way to proceed emerging anytime soon. At the same time, the diversity of languages of spoken in U.S. schools continues to expand. Languages include Spanish, Hmong, Urdu, Russian, Chinese, Polish, Korean, Tagalog, Swahili and more. Achieving the goal for all students to obtain a satisfactory level of learning is often compromised by the cultural, social, and language differences among various groups. The inability to come to grips with how to best approach the learning needs of ELL student’s, places them at greater risk of falling behind.

The original enthusiasm for bilingual programs has diminished, as these programs are now criticized as being ineffective. Support for the immersion model has declined, as initial supporters now believe ELL students simply aren’t learning English quickly and thoroughly enough. They now suggest that the immersion program does not facilitate the ELL students’ ability to cope with the American culture, not just in school, but also beyond school boundaries. The slower learning curve experienced by ELL students in immersion programs may plague them for the rest of their lives.

This belief is based on research that suggests Hispanics who were in school from the 1970s through the 1990s, and who were in bilingual programs earned less money on average than Hispanic students educated during the same period in an English-only setting. Hispanic high school dropouts which were in English-only classrooms are also fewer in number and more likely to return to school later. Immersion makes it difficult for the teacher to provide support for all students’ needs. In the case of a complex assignment such as a research paper, language and usage are challenging even for fluent students. The further complication of using a second language puts ELL students at a serious disadvantage, without special support. The immersion method of teaching is yet to establish itself as an effective program for minority students.

Supporters of the transitional and developmental models insist that students taught at least some of their core academics in their native language can better keep pace with their English-speaking peers. According to research studies, transitional instruction in both the native language and English actually helps students learn English more quickly and effectively. In this way, students become more literate in their native language, which in turn improves their ability to learn English.

An issue that complicates the education of the ELL learners is the lack of training among teachers and the apparent lack of urgency on the part of the states to ensure highly qualified ELL teachers. Further, most states do not have incentives for teachers to pursue a license or endorsement in ELL instruction. Regardless of the model chosen, qualified teachers will be needed to ensure quality programs.

In many states, to include California, Arizona and Massachusetts, the immersion model is winning out. In 1998, California legislators passed Proposition 227, which required that ELL students be taught in specialized immersion programs for one year before they are transferred to regular classes. Critics propose this policy is problematic because students who exit one year of immersion instruction may not be at grade level academically, nor proficient enough in English to continue work in a regular classroom.

While standardized test scores for both English speaking and ELL students have improved in California, the improvement among ELL students has not been as significant. It appears ELL students are still losing ground. Despite the conflict and uncertainty about how to best educate ELL students, there are some schools that have bilingual programs and are proud of them. Queens, New York offers a bilingual program in Mandarin for K-5, simply because 87 percent of the students are Chinese ELL students and the English-speaking students expressed a desire to learn Mandarin.

There appears to be a lack of federal support for bilingual education. While the No Child Left Behind legislation provides states with funding for the education of non-English speaking students, there is no explicit support for bilingual education. In fact, there are no funds for bilingual program development, nor are there requirements for evaluation of existing bilingual programs. States have leeway in terms of how they approach the education of non-English speaking students.

It is clear that the federal government’s position is one of supporting English acquisition instead of bilingual education of students. This is evident by the change in the name of the Office of Bilingual Education to the Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient. The director of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs is now called the Director of English Language Acquisition.

The implementation of bilingual programs has not been without hidden political agendas. The previously mentioned Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was the result of a desire to sway Hispanic votes in Texas. Unfortunately, the political impetus often changes and with it so can legislation. Provisions in NCLB replaced funds that were more widely available for a number of bilingual education initiatives. Language and culture are directly linked. Requiring students to surrender their language without offering cultural studies to them in school is tantamount to asking them to ignore their own roots. Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans feel that bilingual education is crucial in order to retain their culture.

The English-only movement however is once again sweeping the nation and supporters feel that the English language is the glue that holds together the American culture. Supporters of the bilingual education movement feel that an English-only education will turn back the clock and bring about a surge of intolerance against non or limited English speakers. Dissenters such as Humberto Garza commented on the absurdity of city employees in Los Altos, California speaking only English in an area dominated by Spanish-speaking Mexican Americans who have lived in the area since it was part of the Republic of Mexico. It is clear that linguistic diversity pose challenges for schools and indeed society at large. This longstanding and historical dilemma will likely continue in the foreseeable future as the number of non-English speakers continues to grow.

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