Ethnicity and Education
Bilingual Education Runs Into Trouble
hy have so many social reforms of the sixties simply folded before the onslaught of the new reformer, Ronald Reagan? The President has only to brandish his budget-cutting sword, and what we thought were sturdy champions of social progress fall helplessly before him, straw men rolling in the dust. Equal Rights for women, Title IX, Voting Rights, Fair Housing, Desegregation: on all fronts reforms are imperiled and no one seems to know which to defend, or why.
In education, one of the most threatened reforms is bilingual education, perhaps the most widely misunderstoodand misrepresentednew educational program. According to its most severe critics, bilingual education encourages students not to learn English; fosters a separatist mentality among minorities that could lead to severe linguistic cultural problems, like those presently dividing Quebec and Canada; and could force many Americans to learn foreign languages (eg. Spanish in states like New Mexico and Florida).
But in fact, none of these accusations is supported by a shred of evidence. And as many bilingual proponents point out, these seemingly reasonable criticisms are often respectable masks for deeper fears and prejudices. Still, no one can deny that bilingual education is one of the most controversial of the sixties reforms, and that its opponents are more numerous and powerful than ever. The reasons are not difficult to find: first, the supporters of bilingual education have put their case in terms that flagrantly oppose some of the nations fundamental ideological assumptions. Second, proponents have failed to muster sufficient evidence to prove that bilingual education has achieved any of its goals. Third, and perhaps most damagingly, they have failed to make clear to most Americans just what bilingual education is and why it is necessary.
As originally conceived, bilingual education is a very simple concept, one that most Americans should have no trouble understanding and accepting. First legislated by the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, it seeks to speed the learning process for children whose English does not equip them to learn effectively in school. Formerly, such students had been given traditional, so-called "English as a second language" (ESL) classes, where they tried to improve their English. But meanwhile, all the other classes they attendedmath, history, and so onwere being taught in advanced English, which they often failed to understand. Not surprisingly, such students started off behind their English-speaking peers and fell further and further behind each year. To make matters worse, their inability to speak and understand English often gave teachers and administrators an excuse simply to ignore them. Researchers found that as a consequence the drop-out rates among Hispanics, for example, ran as high as ninety percent. In Massachusetts, a 1970 Task Force Report on children leaving school revealed that only one of two hundred Puerto Rican seniors had managed to graduate from Boston public schools the previous year.
Bilingual education, in contrast, allows students to keep up with math and other courses by teaching these to them in their native language. At the same time, it continues to teach special English classes (also in their native tongue) so that students can eventually transfer into regular classrooms at or near grade level. The theory behind the programs is simple: learning to read, write, and compute is difficult enough, but learning to do so in a foreign language and in an often hostile environment is next to impossible.
The 1968 law was basically an experimental program with relatively limited funding, but it triggered more comprehensive statutes in a number of states. In 1971, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted its own bilingual education law, Chapter 71A. This, too, was just a beginning. With only $7.5 million appropriated over four years, most Boston schools had to continue their traditional ESL instruction. Short of supplies, and without a curriculum, teachers found themselves instructing students in bathroom vestibules and kindergarten supply rooms.
By the mid-seventies, however, as ethnic identity became a powerful new ideology, the bilingual movement acquired more momentum. This may be, ironically, when its troubles began. New bilingual legislation passed by Congress in 1974 opened the program to any "limited English-speaking" student, regardless of income. Going a step further, the act set up a number of so-called "maintenance" bilingual programs, where students continued studying their own language and culture even after they had mastered English. Going even further than that, the Supreme Court, in its 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision, upheld the OCR position requiring school districts to take "affirmative steps" to provide special instruction to all "limited English-speaking" students.
The following summer, the OCR issued its policy guidelines and identified 334 school districtscontaining more than one million language studentsin possible violation of federal policy as spelled out in those guidelines. Federal law now required local districts to provide transitional bilingual education instruction to any language group of twenty or more students within its jurisdiction. Whats more, the OCR said that intermediate-level students with no English had to be given similar instruction.
But as bilingual programs grew, and as they increasingly emphasized maintenance of an ethnic heritage rather than transition into mainstream American life, opposition to them mounted. Critics complained about the programs cost, about absence of statistics proving that they were having an effect, and, most damaging, about their alleged tendency to reinforce, rather than reduce the students primary cultural heritage. Indeed, numbered among the critics now are some longtime civil-rights activists who believe that bilingual education actually interferes with integration. For all these reasons, the bilingual movement now has its back against the wall. A dozen states still have no provision for educating language minorities, while six others (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Nebraska, North Carolina and West Virginia) have actually passed legislation prohibiting bilingual instruction of any kind.
Bilingual supporters, meanwhile, are in retreat, soft-pedaling the rationales (ethnic identity, cultural pluralism, and political consciousness) they had used so effectively before, and trying desperately to come up with new justifications.
"In the past, weve been accused of feathering our ethnic nest," says Ramon Santiago, president of the National Association of Bilingual Education and chief lobbyist for the bilingual movement. "Were not out here on an ethnic trip. Ethnic identity isnt the goal of bilingual education. The key issue for us is the need to convince the Administration that the main goal of bilingual education is to teach English. We recognize that the law is to teach English, and we dont believe you have one way to do that."
So far in Washington, the Reagan Administration has listened mainly to the critics. This years budget-cutting session left the Office of Bilingual Education with a 1982 budget of $139.5 million, about $27 million less than the amount appropriated last year. For the Bilingual Clearinghouses Joel Gomez, the fact that the budget was merely cut, and not axed entirely, was itself a good sign. "Bilingual education isnt getting singled outnot yet at least," Gomez says. And Santiago has high hopes for the impending reauthorization of the Bilingual Education Act, which expires in 1983. "If we survived the summer of 81," he says, "we can survive 83."
But Santiagos words ring hollow. As state and local governments pull out of the business of educating their citizens, programs like bilingual education will become more and more vulnerable. What bilingual supporters need is an ideology that aligns their programs with the main currents of the American "way." They also need hard facts to prove that their programs are working.
Their failure to provide theseand their inability to anticipate the need for themmay be fatal to their cause. Indeed, this is precisely what the bilingual movement shares with so many other sixties reforms. It tried to go too far, too fast. It relied too heavily on a fragile coalition of various liberal groups, mistaking their temporary strength for permanent dominance, and making no effort to win over or accommodate conservative critics. But now the time for such action has passed. Bilingual supporters, like the supporters of other liberal programs and reforms, have no bargaining position left. Their only hope now is to remember their mistakes so that, when the political pendulum swings left again (as it must), they will not repeat them. As for the students involved, their hope is even more meagerthat the conservatives will back their "melting pot" ideology of assimilation with a healthy economy and lots of jobs. <
Originally published in October 1981 issue of the Boston Review