Enacted at the apex of the Great Society, the Bilingual Education Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson without a single voice raised in dissent. Americans have spent the past 30 years debating what it was meant to accomplish. Was this 1968 law intended primarily to assimilate limited-English-proficient (LEP) children more efficiently? To teach them English as rapidly as possible? To encourage bilingualism and biliteracy? To remedy academic underachievement and high dropout rates? To raise the self-esteem of minority students? To promote social equality? Or to pursue all of these goals simultaneously? The legislative history of the bill provides no definitive answer.
It is hardly an idle question. Whether to continue teaching LEP students in two languages is now a matter of public debate throughout the U.S. Since the mid-1980s, critics have won increasing support for the contention that this experiment, while well intentioned, has failed to meet expectations. Now, in the late 1990s, policymakers are seriously considering demands to limit or even dismantle the program. California voters have already chosen the latter course. Proposition 227, a ballot initiative approved in June 1998, eliminates most native-language instruction in a state with 40% of the nation's LEP students.(1) The future of bilingual education is suddenly in doubt.
Ironically, research provides considerably more support for bilingual approaches today than it did in 1968, when few program models existed and almost none had been evaluated. What seemed reasonable in theory - that investing in children's native-language development should ultimately pay cognitive and academic dividends - has now been borne out in pedagogical practice. Not that success has been universal for all approaches labeled bilingual. Neither has research proved "conclusively," beyond a reasonable doubt, their superiority over English-only methodologies for all children in all contexts. By a more reasonable standard, however, a preponderance of the evidence favors the conclusion that well-designed bilingual programs can produce high levels of school achievement over the long term, at no cost to English acquisition, among students from disempowered groups (see, e.g., Ramirez et al., 1991; Willig, 1985; Greene, 1998).
Pedagogically speaking, these research findings are excellent news. They confirm that developing fluent bilingualism and cultivating academic excellence are complementary, rather than contradictory, goals. Sacrificing LEP students' native language is unnecessary to teach them effectively in English. Moreover, the findings suggest that, while language is not the only barrier to school success for these children, approaches that stress native-language instruction can be helpful in overcoming other obstacles, such as poverty, family illiteracy, and social stigmas associated with minority status. These challenges are formidable, to be sure, requiring schools to replicate effective program models, adapt them to local conditions, train and retrain teachers, develop curriculum and materials, involve parents, and pay attention to a host of other practical details. Yet they are hardly insuperable - given a public commitment to improve programs for English learners.
Politically speaking, however, the research findings are less encouraging. They support an educational rationale for bilingual instruction that is both complex and counterintuitive to members of the public. They also imply a sociopolitical goal that few Americans are inclined to endorse: the legitimation of "bilingualism" in public contexts. Indeed, since the mid-1980s, many U.S. voters have reacted defensively against the racial, cultural, and language diversity brought by rising levels of immigration. A nationwide campaign for "the legal protection of English" has led to the passage of 19 state laws designating English as the sole language of government.(2) Immigrant children's progress in acquiring English is now regarded as a matter of urgency, not only by many Anglo-Americans but also by a significant number of immigrant parents. Hence the growing popularity of nostrums like "structured immersion" and "sheltered English," whose enthusiasts promise short cuts to English proficiency. Conversely, bilingual approaches that feature a more gradual transition to the mainstream are vulnerable to legislative restrictions. In addition to Proposition 227, bills have been proposed in various states and localities, as well as in the U.S. Congress, to impose arbitrary time limits on a child's enrollment in bilingual education (or, in some cases, any special program to address limited English proficiency).
To understand how we arrived at this juncture, it is necessary to analyze the historical roots of today's language attitudes. Ethnic diversity is hardly a recent phenomenon in this country. Neither is bilingual education. How have Americans thought about and coped with these issues previously? How have current policies on language-minority education evolved? How are future ones likely to be determined?
Deconstructing Title VII
Let us begin by considering our original question. Was the Bilingual Education Act (also known as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) intended as:
* An anti-poverty initiative to overcome the educational disadvantages of language-minority students - i.e., to remedy the problem of limited English proficiency?
* An anti-discrimination measure to open up the curriculum for LEP students - i.e., to guarantee their right to equal educational opportunity?
* An experiment in multicultural education to foster bilingualism - i.e., to develop linguistic and cultural resources other than those of the dominant society?
These alternatives correspond to Ruiz's (1984) "orientations in language planning": ways of framing language issues and the language policies adopted in response. Language-as-problem focuses on social liabilities, such as limited proficiency in the majority tongue and its academic consequences. From this perspective, Title VII was a way to ease LEP children's transition to the mainstream, by teaching English, raising self-esteem, and thereby enabling these students to progress in school. Language-as-right emphasizes questions of social equality, or lack thereof, such as whether members of minority groups enjoy unimpeded access to public institutions. In this view, Title VII was designed to overcome language barriers, make school meaningful for LEP students, and give them a chance to succeed. Language-as-resource takes a human capital approach, stressing the social value of conserving and developing minority language skills. Seen through this prism, Title VII was intended to promote fluency in two languages, exploit cultural diversity to meet national needs, and encourage ethnic tolerance.
Ruiz's orientations can help to illuminate the assumptions and implications of alternative language policies. For example, language-as-problem, by focusing on students' language disability, is consistent with a quick-exit pedagogy (bilingual or otherwise) that places the rapid acquisition of English ahead of other academic goals. By contrast, language-as-resource, by focusing on students' language ability in a minority tongue, tends to support a late-exit enrichment model that continues native-language instruction after students are proficient in English.
As ex post facto descriptions, however, Ruiz's categories are less useful in explaining causality - that is, in analyzing the political and ideological factors that go into language policy decisions. Orientations in language planning, elaborated in "pure" form and focusing on sociolinguistic issues, may accurately summarize the policy alternatives as understood by experts in the field. Yet rarely do they correspond to the interests of contending factions or to the actual terms of political debate, which are never pure; usually they extend well beyond the realm of language. In short, orientations toward language per se are rarely determinant in policy decisions about language. This becomes evident in tracing the legislative history of Title VII.
Political momentum was strong from the outset, as 37 different bilingual education bills were introduced in the 90th Congress. Throughout 1967, a series of House and Senate hearings showcased the educational problems of LEP children and elicited virtually unanimous support for a solution involving bilingual instruction. Disagreements were confined to secondary issues, such as whether to cover all LEP students or just Spanish speakers. The witness lists included academic researchers, language educators, school administrators, teachers, psychologists, social workers, elected officials, and representatives of Hispanic, Asian American, and American Indian organizations.(3) Some experts recommended bilingual education as a remedy for LEP students' "linguistic handicap" and resulting "educational problems." Others focused on the bill's potential to develop needed language resources, Spanish skills in particular. Many witnesses cited both objectives, describing them as educationally compatible. (Although …