Bilingual Education

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English 101
19 December, 2002
The debate over bilingual education is nothing if not emotional. The
two sides seem to be spurred on by political opinions from liberals and
conservatives who want to further their own cause. In general terms, that
cause, in relation to bilingual education for liberals is that diverse
languages and customs enrich the U.S. cultural stew and should be allowed
to flourish (Worsnap 6). Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that
the mission of U.S. schools is to nurture a common language – English – and
a common national identity (Worsnap 6). The issue over bilingual education
goes back several decades, even a century, in America’s history. When this
country was founded, people came from around the globe to create a new
place to live in freedom and peace. So, from the very beginning of our
nation’s inception, there has been a need to teach newcomers English. At
first this was accomplished by complete submersion. There were no
“programs” set up by the government, only a strong desire by those
immigrants to become a part of their new country. Until the 1960’s,
interest in bilingual education was limited. Then public and political
interest increased when thousands of Cuban refugees started pouring into
South Florida after Fidel Castro gained power in 1959 (Dunlap 8). At that
time, Dade County (Miami) wanted to help arriving children to adjust to
their new country, so in 1963 they became the first county to begin an
experimental bilingual education program in first to third grades at their
Coral Way Elementary School (Dunlap 8). Because this experiment was deemed
a success after just a few years, widespread support for bilingual
education helped advocates persuade lawmakers to fund bilingual programs
during congressional hearings in 1967; and they
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were successful when by President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the proposition
in January 1968 (Dunlap 8). The bilingual education act, adopted as Title
IIV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), made available
federal money for bilingual programs. Although the act did not require
local school districts to establish bilingual programs, it did encourage
their development by offering grants. In 1974 the act was broadened and
clarified the federal role in bilingual education, and for the first time,
federal money was made available for training teachers and developing
curricula and instructional materials (Dunlap 9).

“Bilingual education started out in 1968 as a modest $7.5 million
pilot program to help (immigrant) children learn English. Today it’s a $5
billion boondoggle including federal, state and local funds that actually
prevents kids from acquiring the language that will determine their
economic and social success as adults,” writes Rosalie Pesalino Porter,
author of the 1990 book Forked Tongue: the Politics of Bilingual Education
and chairman of the Institute for Research in English Acquisition and
Development (READ) (qtd. in Worsnap 6). This opinion is shared by many
experts in the field of bilingual education and also the side that I will
discuss in depth in this paper. But first, what exactly is bilingual
education and what different approaches are available to teach limited
English proficient (LEP) students English?
The definition of bilingual education is: instruction for those who
do not speak English, by teachers who use the students’ native language at
least part of the day. The term usually has meant teaching students to be
fluent in two languages (Worsnap 3). There are four basic alternatives for
instructing LEP children. The first of these is immersion or “sink or
swim”. In this model, the LEP child is placed in a regular English
classroom with English monolingual children and given no more special help
than any child with educational problems (Rossell 19). A second technique
is English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, which consists of
regular classroom instruction for most of the day combined with a special
pull out program of
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English language instruction for one or two periods a day, or in some
districts two or three periods per week, and participation in the regular
classroom for the rest of the time (Rossell 19). A third instructional
technique is structured immersion, where instruction is in the English
language in a self-contained classroom of LEP children. The English used
in these programs is always geared to the children’s language proficiency
at each stage so that it is comprehensible, and the student thus learns the
second language (English) and subject matter content simultaneously
(Rossell 19). The fourth instructional technique, transitional bilingual
education (TBE), is when the student is taught to read and write in the
native tongue, with subject matter also taught in the native tongue.

English is initially taught for only a small portion of the day. As the
child progresses in English, the amount of instructional time in the native
tongue is reduced and English increased, until the student is proficient
enough in English to join the regular classroom. (Rossell 18) “For most
people learning a new language, progress depends on two factors –
motivation and exposure to the new language, which means having the
opportunity to understand it and use it for real purposes,” said Patricia
Whitelaw-Hill, an ESL teacher for many years and executive director of the
READ Institute in Washington, D.C. (89). To this end, it is my opinion
that bilingual education is a waste of government money because it does not
expose LEP students to enough English for them to become proficient in an
timely manner and because bilingual education fosters a sense of separation
in stead of unity among students which transfers into our country’s lack of
unity.

To begin with, I am against any more government money being spent on
bilingual education because the current methods being used are taking too
many years to teach LEP students English. In America today, Transitional
bilingual education (TBE) is the most common approach for teaching
immigrants English in our schools. “The majority of elementary school
programs have as their goal exiting a student after 3 years,” says
Christine Rossell, a professor of
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political science at Boston University and co-author of Bilingual Education
Reform in Massachusetts. “But these programs also allow students to stay
in the program longer than three years . . . Indeed, many children stay in
a bilingual program throughout their elementary school career ” (19).

According to Keith Baker, an independent social science consultant, “One
study using a nationally representative sample of over 300 programs of
LEP’s, found that depending on the type of program, the average length of
time that students were in a special program for LEP’s was 2.6 to 3.5
years. This study also showed that students remained longer in programs as
the use of Spanish increased in their program ” (30). In addition, Rosalie
Porter states that, “it will not surprise anyone to learn that at all
grade levels students in ESL classrooms exited faster than those served in
bilingual classrooms.” She continues, “Most students in the ESL program
were out of it in two to three years, while most students in bilingual
classes took four to seven years to move into regular classrooms” (35).

All of these experts, and many others, who have researched bilingual
education have come up with the same results and that is: it is taking way
too long for LEP students in bilingual programs to learn English. Suzanne
Guerrero, a 14-year veteran bilingual education teacher in California had
this to say:
In order for children to become fluent in English, they must be
exposed to English as much as possible. This is especially true
for the many students whom school is the only place where they
use English. Yet I am required by my district to teach those
children who do not come from English-speaking families in their
native language – Spanish in my case – until they formally
transition into English. To do this, they must meet certain
criteria, which includes passing a Spanish reading and writing
test with a score of 80 percent or higher. It takes a long time
to teach children to do that in English, let alone in two
languages. (93)
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How can students who are exposed to a majority of their native language in
school instead of English be expected to learn English? The answer is:
they can’t. This becomes clear in a study conducted by the New York City
Board of Education from 1990-1994 where three-year exit rates were compared
between ESL and bilingual education programs. The study showed that for
LEP students who entered in Kindergarten that 79 percent of the ESL
students exited the program after three years in comparison to only 51
percent in a bilingual education program. When students entered in second
grade, 67 percent of student in the ESL program exited after three years
with only 22 percent from the bilingual program. These numbers lowered
again when LEP students did not enter until the sixth grade with 32 percent
from ESL and 6 percent from bilingual education. (Amselle 121) “For these
reasons, I believe it’s best to begin teaching English to non-English-
speaking students in the earliest grades,” says Whitehill-Law. “This means
that most students can be fully integrated into mainstream classrooms well
before the crucial high school years” (90).Because of the importance of
literacy skills in academic success, students need to achieve fluency well
before high school. It’s extremely important to develop these reading and
writing skills from the earliest age possible (Whitehill-Law 90) and to
expose LEP students to English in large quantities without confusing their
learning with native-language instruction.

Another reason that I do not support more money being spent on
bilingual education is because it does not promote unity among citizens in
this country. When schools choose to use TBE (Transitional bilingual
education) to teach LEP students English, they are promoting the use and
learning of the students’ native language and culture, and they are also
keeping these students out of mainstream classes and away from English-
speaking peers for many years. Senator Robert Dole, R -Kan. said that U.S.

schools must teach immigrant children English and “stop the practice of
multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride or as a
therapy
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for low self-esteem or out of elitist guilt over a culture built on the
traditions of the West” (qtd. in Worsnap 2). He later added that
“Promoting English as our national language is not an act of hostility but
a welcoming act of inclusion . . . , bilingualism supporters are
pressing for long-term exercises in native-language instruction and
thousands of children are failing to learn the language, English, that is
the ticket to the American dream” (qtd. in Worsnap 2). Official-English
supporters say that their adversaries are liberal elitists who want to
separate Americans in warring ethnic camps, confined to language ghettos,
isolated from economic opportunity and contemptuous of U.S. culture
(Worsnap 2). They also accuse the bilingual camp of wanting to explode the
cultural melting pot that has made the United States a relatively peaceful
society derived from many cultures (Worsnap 2-3). Why should America be
different than any other nation with a common language? Just as Americans
relocating to a foreign country, immigrants coming to the United States
“have a duty . . . to understand and respect our system, including our
language,” said Stanley Diamond, chairman of the National English Campaign
(qtd in Worsnap 8). President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the country’s
foremost advocates of “Americanization”, wrote in The Foes of Our Household
(published in 1917), “any man who comes here . . . must adopt the language
which is now the native tongue of our people . . .. It would not be merely
a misfortune, but a crime to perpetuate differences of language in this
country” (qtd in Dunlap 7). Bilingual education, with its insistence on
maintaining people’s native languages at the expense of our common
language, violates the basic tenet of nation-building (Roth 16). “We must
not lose sight of the fact that this is not just an abstract public policy
issue; bilingual education and our national language policies have real
world consequences,” said Rep. Toby Roth, R-Wis., sponsor of an official-
English bill. “When our policies serve to divide rather than unite us, the
rips appear in the very fabric of the American nation” (16). He added,
“Only those who are ripping off . . . government programs, like
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bilingual education . . . are opposed to official English” (qtd in Dunlap
3). Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., wrote in his 1995 book, To
Renew America, that “Without English as a common language there is no
American civilization” (qtd in Dunlap 2). It is clear to me that
programs like bilingual education separate instead of unify and that
without unity in this nation, we cannot hope to see immigrants achieve the
true American dream – prosperity – they came here to find.

Advocates of bilingual education say that their main goal is to teach
English to non-English-speaking children. “But the truth is that their
primary purpose is to perpetuate a seriously flawed teaching method so that
the bureaucracy that supports it can sustain itself. Their livelihoods
depend on promoting the myth that children taught in one language will
learn English,” says Sally Peterson, founder and director of LEAD (Learning
English Advocates Drive). “If these children ever do learn English, it
takes years” (89). Advocates also claim that children need to be taught in
their native language because of self-esteem. But there is no evidence
that bilingual education has an impact on a student’s self worth (Peterson
79). “Why after 25 years can’t bilingual education advocates silence
their critics with overwhelming proof that native-language instruction
works?” proposed Peterson. Her answer, “They cannot, because the proof
does not exist” (79). Another misconception by bilingual supporters is
that reading skills easily transfer from one language to another. This is
only true in certain limited cases. Being literate in one language means
you have an understanding of what the reading process is about which is an
important first step. For different languages, however, different decoding
strategies are employed. The vowel systems in Spanish and English are
quite different, and this causes a lot of initial difficulty in reading for
Spanish speakers. (Guerrero 91)
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Native-language-based bilingual education is a human tragedy of
national proportions. Thousands of promising young people in public
schools are segregated for years by language. They fail to achieve their
potential because they cannot compete in the educational mainstream,
so in turn, they become discouraged and quit. (Peterson 79) Statistics
prove that when students are not proficient in English by high school that
drop out rates increase dramatically. In a November 1989 population study
by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, they found that
only 10.5 percent of English-speaking teens dropped out of high school in
comparison to almost 50 percent of Spanish-speaking teens that have a
difficulty with English (Amselle 112). Currently in the U.S., there are
over two million LEP students in the public school system with more and
more moving here every year. Billions of federal, state and local dollars
are being spent on bilingual education programs that do not work. In 1992
alone, over $5 billion dollars of state and local money was spent on
bilingual education (Amselle 118). And what has been the result of this
grand expenditure? Well, there are no results because there has been no
accountability set up to monitor bilingual education. Both California and
Massachusetts, in state reports published in 1992 and 1994, admitted to
this failure (Porter 34). In addition, California, with 1.2 million LEP
students also reported that teachers were not testing students for exit
from bilingual programs and keeping these children in bilingual classrooms
years beyond the point where they need special help (Porter 34). Bilingual
education has grown tremendously from its modest start and currently some
2.5 million children are eligible for bilingual or ESL classes (Chavez 10).

According to Roth, 32 million Americans don’t speak English and in just
five years, that number will rise to 40 million which when put in
perspective means that one in seven homes, the inhabitants speak a foreign
language (13). For most of our nation’s history, America gave the children
of immigrants a great gift – an education in the English language. What
are we doing now for these new Americans today? Instead of giving
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them a first-rate education in English, our bilingual education programs
are consigning an entire generation of new Americans – unable to speak,
understand, and use English effectively – to a second-class future. (Roth
13)



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