Bilingual Education

Education Week
January 31, 2003

The original objective of bilingual education was to ensure students would not fall behind academically because of a poor command of English and to gradually teach them English as a second language. If language-minority students were taught some subjects in their native tongue, proponents insisted, they
potentially could learn English without sacrificing content knowledge.

But bilingual education’s critics argue that the approach keeps students in a cycle of native language dependency that ultimately inhibits significant progress in English language acquisition. Proponents counter that if students first learn to read in the language they are fluent in and then transfer the skills over to
English—their second language—they will develop stronger literacy skills in the long term. Plus, they argue that in an increasingly global society, schools, far from discouraging native-language retention, should work to help students maintain their native tongues, even as they also teach them English.

Complicating the debate is the range of programs that, by some people’s definition, fall under the umbrella of bilingual education. Some use bilingual education to refer only to transitional bilingual education or two-way bilingual programs while others consider any program designed for students with limited proficiency in
English to be “bilingual.” For instance, they may refer to English-as-a-second-language programs, where students are typically taught solely in English, as bilingual education.

Public sentiment against transitional bilingual education has been growing. On June 2, 1998, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, an initiative that largely eliminated bilingual education from the state’s public schools. Under the California initiative, most English-language learners students in
that state are now placed in English-immersion programs.

Arizona voters followed suit by passing Proposition 203, a proposal similar to the California initiative, on
Nov. 7, 2000. In both California and Arizona, the proportion of English-language learners in bilingual
education classes decreased from about one third to 11 percent after the initiatives became law.

The campaigns to pass anti-bilingual education measures in California and Arizona were financed by Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Mr. Unz has also launched campaigns in Colorado and Massachusetts with local residents that succeeded in placing anti-bilingual education initiatives on the ballots of those states on Nov. 5, 2002. Massachusetts voters approved the ballot initiative in their state, doing away with the oldest bilingual education law in the nation, but Colorado voters rejected the one in
their state.

Despite the "English-only" message that Propositions 227 and 203 and the initiatives in Colorado and
Massachusetts bear, the debate over how best to instruct linguistically diverse students is far from
decided nationwide.

Different Methods
English immersion: Instruction is entirely in English. Teachers strive to deliver lessons in simplified English so that students learn English and academic subjects.

English as a second language: May be the same as immersion but also may include some support to individuals in their native tongue. Typically classes are comprised of students who speak many different languages but are not fluent in English. They may attend classes for only a period a day, to work strictly on English skills, or attend for a full day and focus both on academics and English.

Transitional bilingual education: Instruction for some subjects is in the students’ native language but a certain amount of each day is spent on developing English skills. Classes are made up of students who share the same native language.

Two-way bilingual education: Instruction is given in two languages to students, usually in the same classroom, who may be dominant in one language or the other, with the goal of the students’ becoming proficient in both languages. Teachers usually team teach, with each one responsible to teach in only one of the languages. This approach is also sometimes called dual-immersion or dual-language.