Targeting Diversity: A Critical Account of Language Policy and Public Education

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The Pragmatics of Bilingual Education

For non-English-speaking students, negotiating language barriers in the classroom can be an exasperating process. Without adequate resources, these language-minority students easily fall behind their peers and are often classified as having learning disabilities. To address this issue, schools have adopted a variety of language-assistance programs. How these programs are implemented has a profound effect on the scholastic achievement, language-acquisition, and identity of immigrant students. Unfortunately, schools that service communities with high immigrant populations are often faced with a severe lack of resources (Johnson 2008b).

In the United States, the enrollment of all students in bilingual education programs rose from 2.1 million in the 1990-1991 academic year to more than 5 million in 2003 (Flannery 2006). A 2000 congressionally mandated study found that students in bilingual programs receive lower grades, are judged by their teachers to have lower academic abilities, and score below their classmates on standardized tests of reading and math. Furthermore, with respect to the immigrant students to whom a majority of these language-minority programs are targeted, the dropout rate for foreign-born Latino students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four is an astonishing 36.5 percent, as compared to 4.7 percent of non-Latino immigrants (U.S. Department of Education 2007). In response to these types of educational trends, many people (e.g., English for the Children, see Johnson 2008a) have pointed the finger at bilingual education programs as the cause of such widespread failure.

The debate surrounding bilingual education has many facets. From a pedagogical perspective, researchers and educators work vigorously to determine the most efficient methodologies. In addition to multiple other challenges educators experience in the public school system, teachers are faced with a lack of resources and the support necessary for educating language-minority students. With more than 425 first languages spoken by immigrant students in the United States, teachers and administrators can only rarely provide native-language instruction (Flannery 2006). Even when language services are provided, many people still blame bilingual education programs for low achievement and high dropout rates. Furthermore, from a mainstream social standpoint, using foreign languages in the classroom commonly is seen as a threat to the vitality of English.

Before pigeonholing bilingual education programs as the determinant of underachievement, social views toward immigrants and broader educational practices must be addressed. First, public schools emphasize English as an indispensable skill for achievement. While it is understandable that public schools prioritize English for the sake of academic achievement, such prioritizing is frequently done in such a way that immigrant languages are discredited or devalued. Advocates of English-only programs equate conformity to success and promote linguistic diversity as social degradation and deviation. In programs where English is used as the sole medium of instruction, native speakers are automatically accorded higher levels of power and influence (Tollefson and Tsui 2004). This automatically relegates minority languages to an inferior position. Often, bilingual education programs are defamed as inhibiting the acquisition of English and denying access to the American Dream (Johnson 2006). Hidden behind this negative facade, however, is the true goal of bilingual education: to cultivate multilingualism and multiliteracy.

Accountability in Arizona

Drawing from the surge of anti-bilingual education sentiments at the turn of the millennium, Ron Unz and the program he initiated, English for the Children, promoted Proposition 203 to dismantle bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) programs in Arizona's public schools (Johnson 2008a). …