Bilingual Education: Si O No?

By Hirsch, Eric; Lays, Julie | State Legislatures, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Bilingual Education: Si O No?


Hirsch, Eric, Lays, Julie, State Legislatures


The voters in California said "enough" to bilingual education. People elsewhere say it works. The debate continues.

Can a child learn English in a class where she speaks Spanish with her friends, hears Spanish at least half the time from her teacher and does math, science and social studies in Spanish? The voters in California said no.

After 20 years of accepting bilingual education as the best way to teach non-English speakers, educators, parents and policymakers started questioning the value of the programs. They criticized them as bureaucratic boondoggies, failing the children they were designed to help. Some children stayed in bilingual classes too long. Other kids were not performing well academically. Dropout rates remained high. Research was mixed on the effectiveness of these programs. "The Legislature realized that the state policy was not serving students with limited English proficiency well," says California Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, chairwoman of the Committee on Education, "but was unable to move a bill through that would reform programs."

"I kept seeing kids doing poorly in the upper grades after they had gone through bilingual education," said Virginia Martinez, a former bilingual educator in Santa Ana. "There was no transition to English. I felt that bilingual education was holding them back."

So last summer when Ronald Unz, a successful white businessman from the Silicon Valley, initiated Proposition 227 (doing away with all bilingual education), it struck a chord with many - 61 percent of California voters, in fact.

Modern bilingual education has been around since the 1970s when educators, faced with a court decision, decided that using two languages for instruction (English and the child's native language) was a good way to help children learn English while keeping up with subject matter. Before that, children were dropped into regular classrooms taught in English to "sink or swim."

In the landmark case of Lau vs. Nichols (1974), the Supreme Court, ruling on federal law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, required that school districts take "affirmative steps" to overcome educational barriers faced by non-English speakers. The Court argued that identical education programs for non-English speaking students were not equal and ruled that the "sink or swim" method of immediate immersion was a civil rights violation. Congress passed the Equal Educational Opportunity Act that same year, extending the Lau decision to all schools.

Around the country, there are 3.2 million students who speak little English (officially classified as "limited English proficient"). Of the 1.3 million students in bilingual programs, 73 percent speak Spanish, 4 percent, Vietnamese, and fewer than 2 percent speak Hmong, Cantonese and Cambodian each. Immigrant children who aren't offered bilingual classes in their native languages learn English with the help of English as a second language (ESL) teachers. Their classes are taught in English, and teachers make use of visuals and other methods to communicate effectively.

Proposition 227 requires that students be placed in structured English language immersion programs for one year without native language support and then be mainstreamed into regular classrooms. But it too, is controversial. A number of educators, policymakers and parents don't like this narrow approach to education. "In California, prior to the proposition, we had some successful programs and some very unsuccessful programs," says Mazzoni. "The initiative was a one-size-fits-all approach that throws out everything."

A class action lawsuit filed immediately after it passed in June asserted the proposition violated federal law, but a July ruling upheld it for the beginning of the 1998-99 school year. However, waivers have been granted to school districts able to prove that students would be adversely affected by the law's requirements. …

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