U.S. Bilingual Education Controversy Continues

Teach ESL Students in Native Languages or Through English Immersion?

The Texas Public Policy Foundation released a September 2009 report stating, “Bilingual education is more expensive than other programs and is the least educationally effective.” Following that report came a call in the September 3, 2009 Houston Chronicle by the report’s author, Christine Rossell, to end Texas’ bilingual education policy, calling it “outdated and ineffective.”

At about the same time, an article in the September 4, 2009 Fresno Bee touted a “structured English immersion” program developed by educational consultant Kevin Clark and being used in a number of school districts in California, Massachusetts, and Arizona. Reportedly the districts involved are experiencing “dramatic success.”

The controversy over bilingual education centers around the question of whether it is effective or even desirable for English language learners to be taught core subjects in their native language or whether they should be fully immersed in English at school.

The Case for Bilingual Education

Bilingual education refers to specific school programming in which English as a second language (ESL) students are taught math, science and social studies in their native language whenever possible. Delivery models for such instruction vary from district to district and even from school to school, but the key component is the use of the students’ native language for targeted instruction. Proponents of bilingual education say that if ESL students wait until they are proficient in English to learn essential math and science, they will lag behind their English speaking peers.

The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) is one of a number of bilingual education support organizations that believes bilingual education, when well designed and well implemented, is an effective model for teaching English language learners. NABE cites research studies on its website supporting the efficacy of bilingual education. NABE also promotes the concept of bi-literacy, saying that people who are bi-literate will fare better in a global world.

The Case for English Immersion

Some educators argue that ESL students need to be fully immersed in English if they are to learn the language. They argue that allowing and even encouraging students to learn in their primary language is expensive and does not expose them to enough English to become proficient quickly.

In an April 2009 Educational Leadership article titled “The Case For Structured Immersion,” Kevin Clark describes an instructional model in which significant portions of the school day are dedicated to the explicit teaching of the English language, and in which ESL students are grouped according to their proficiency levels. In this model, English language is the main content of instruction with academic content playing a supportive role, as opposed to a bilingual model in which academic content is the main focus, with English being supported. A main tenant of structured English immersion is that teaching English is not the same as teaching in English.

The disadvantage of the structured English immersion program is that students are not exposed to the level of content instruction that is possible in when a bilingual program offers instruction in their native language. Presumably, in districts in which the state has not restricted bilingual teaching, students could still receive some content instruction in their own languages.

States Outlaw Bilingual Education

Janel D. Ginn, editor of the book Bilingual Education [Greenhaven Press, 2008] suggests that the debate over bilingual education evolves almost exclusively around two languages: English and Spanish. She suggests that the controversy “is not so much an issue of instruction, but one of competing cultures.”

That notion may not be so off base. Three states, California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, have enacted laws (in 1998, 2000, and 2002 respectively) requiring that only English be taught in pubic schools and essentially outlawing bilingual education programming. In all three states, the laws were ballot initiatives put before voters and approved in referendum.

A number of states mandate or financially support bilingual education, including Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Washington, New Mexico, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Nevada. However, many of these states have or have had ballot initiatives to reverse the mandates and require English-only instruction. Colorado was the first state to vote down an initiative to end bilingual education (in 2002).

The Controversy Over English Instruction Continues

Research shows that students learn academic content best when they learn in their native language and that children can succeed in two languages. However, some bilingual programs, such as the one in Texas, apparently do a poor job of helping ESL students become proficient in English, while some immersion programs, such as those used in Arizona, seem to be providing positive results, though it may be at the expense of academic learning.

The one thing that is not disputed is that in order to succeed in American society, students need to become proficient in English. Should ESL programming utilize full immersion, structured immersion, a bilingual model or some combination? Each has its advantages and disadvantages. One model of instruction may not fit all circumstances. The answer may well be different for different schools with differently diverse populations.

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