A Theoretical Framework for Bilingual Special Education

By Cummins, Jim | Exceptional Children, October 1989 | Go to article overview

A Theoretical Framework for Bilingual Special Education


Cummins, Jim, Exceptional Children


A Theoretical Framework for Bilingual Special Education

ABSTRACT: This article outlines a theoretical matrix for conceptualizing issues within the

emerging field of bilingual special education. Among current issues are the difficulty of

distinguishing genuine learning disabilities from second-language-acquisition problems,

nondiscriminatory assessment of language and intellectual skills, the effects of bilingual

interactions in home and school, and appropriate forms of pedagogy and intervention for at-risk

minority students and those with disabilities. These issues are discussed in relation to the

nature of language proficiency and intellectual development, the sociology of dominant-subordinate

group interaction, and models of teaching and learning. * This article presents a theoretical framework that involves both a causal analysis of minority students' academic difficulties and an intervention model designed to reverse these difficulties. The framework does not make any a priori distinction between "bilingual education" and "bilingual special education," nor does it assume the validity of categories such as "learning disability" or "mildly handicapped." Such categorical distinctions tend to assume a medical model of special education that locates the causes of academic difficulties within the individual child. Intervention then becomes focused on remediating the child; and the educational system within which the child is experiencing learning difficulties generally becomes immune from critical scrutiny.

The present theoretical framework takes the opposite starting point, namely, that the causes of minority students' academic difficulties are to be found in the ways schools have reinforced, both overtly and covertly, the discrimination that certain minority groups have historically experienced in the society at large. The causes of minority students' academic difficulties are thus analyzed initially in sociohistorical perspective.

When research results regarding minority student underachievement are examined internationally, a striking pattern emerges. The groups that currently perform very poorly at school have historically been discriminated against and regarded as inherently inferior by the dominant group. For example, in the United States, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students have all experienced subjugation by the dominant group (see Ogbu, 1978). Several investigators have argued that the educational underachievement of these groups is, in part, a function of the fact that schools have traditionally reinforced the ambivalence and insecurity that many minority students tend to feel with regard to their own cultural identity (Cummins, 1986; Ogbu & Matute-Bianchi, 1986). The implication of this analysis is that prevention of academic difficulties among minority students, and genuine remediation, requires that educators adopt role definitions that challenge rather than reflect the values of the wider society. If power relations between the dominant and dominated groups are fundamental contributors to minority students' underachievement, then bilingual special educators must decide whether they can remain neutral with respect to the ways in which these power relations are manifested in the interactions between educators and minority students in schools.

In short, the major unit of analysis within the framework is the role definition that educators adopt with respect to minority students' cultural identity and language. Collectively, these role definitions define the extent to which schools either disable minority students by inadvertantly reflecting broader patterns of societal discrimination or, alternatively, empower students by promoting their linguistic talents and confidence in their personal identity and ability to succeed academically.

A CAUSAL ANALYSIS AND INTERVENTION FRAMEWORK

The framework presented in Figure 1 is adapted from Cummins (1986).

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