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Speaking in Tongues: Bilingual Education and Immigrant Communities
"America has evolved for the better. She will pretty much meet you on your terms. In fact

Speaking in Tongues: Bilingual Education and Immigrant Communities

"America has evolved for the better. She will pretty much meet you on your terms. In fact

America has evolved for the better. She will pretty much meet you on your terms. In fact, I think she has finally come to the conclusion that Blacks, Mexicans, Indians, etc. are here to stay. And the only way to perceive them is to accept them and their existence as valid. Acceptance, that’s really the key word. America is accepting all the people, as one people, the way it was meant to be. Today, at least, you can afford to be yourself.

Maria, a Hispanic social worker, quoted in Rachel F. Moran’s 1987 California Law Review article

“We have room for but one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as American, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”

Theodore Roosevelt

These two vastly differing quotes show the divisive nature of bilingual education in our society – is it the natural representation of the functional and celebrated diversity of America, or is it an insidious wedge guaranteed only to sow rancor?

The recent swipes at education by Arizona’s legislature – including a plan to remove all ethnic studies programs by 2011 – came on the heels of its restrictive immigration bill, SB1070, and many advocate say this is no coincidence.

Dr. Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona and regular columnist on immigrant rights issues, says that Arizona’s stance against immigrants “is not a new phenomenon,” but that many people do not realize it had its roots in education policies.

“What’s new is that it’s simply combined with other things,” Rodriguez said of the anti-immigrant sentiment. Spanish “was usually language non grata, now it’s the language and the skin color and the person.”

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As the most recent numbers from the Institute for Language and Education Policy show, the experience of bilingual students is not to be ignored. In the 2004-05 school year, about 5.12 million students were emergent bilinguals, which meant they were learning their second language. This was about 10.5 percent of the total pre-school to 12th grade population, an increase of over 110 percent in the last fifteen years. Enrollments of emergent bilinguals are increasing seven times more rapidly than general enrollments.

However, this growth is not tied entirely to recent immigration. The majority of emergent bilinguals at both primary and secondary levels of education are born in the United States: the figures for the former are 77 percent, and 56 percent for the latter. Of these, the majority, between 75 and 80 percent, speak Spanish as their native language.

A Very Brief History of Bilingual Education in America

The history of bilingual education has always been tied up with national feeling towards immigrants – in Chicago, during the 19th century, school was originally taught in German. Though there were some failed attempts to require all public schools in Illinois to teach English, such as the short-lived Edwards Law of 1889, the reaction from immigrant families kept English education at bay. It was only after the U.S. entry into World War 1 and the strong anti-German sentiment that removed bilingual education from Illinois schools, according to the Chicago Encyclopedia.

The next big fight over bilingual education was for what would eventually become the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, the first piece of United States federal legislation regarding minority language speakers. Its purpose was to provide school districts with federal funds to establish educational programs for students with limited English speaking ability.

It consolidated gains that were fought for by schools and the Chicano movement in the Southwest and West during the riotous 1960s to gain educational equality, and was clarified by an additional civil rights case, Lau V. Nichols, in 1974. This case was brought by Chinese American students in San Francisco who claimed that, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they were entitled to special help because if their difficulty with the English language. They won the suit and helped set the precedent for bilingual funding and allowances, and legitimized the idea that students learning English had specific educational rights.

However, the picture today is somewhat different. No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era education reform, replaced the act in 2002.

Disparities in immigrant populations, funding and political approaches to bilingual education ensure that bilingual children across the country experience similar disparities in the “welcome” of their educational environment.

A recent American Federation of Teachers report found that 60 percent of emergent bilinguals are educated in English-only programs, and of these students 12 percent receive no additional support at all in learning English, which in many cases may be a violation of federal law.

In addition to the federal money received, only 33 states provide extra funding for language programs, twenty-four do not require additional funding be spent on emergent bilinguals in specific and ten states spend $0 on emergent bilingual education.

These numbers also mask huge disparities in distribution. Only five states – California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois – were the home of 68 percent of all emergent bilinguals, the 2000 Census found. Meanwhile, the rate of growth seen between 1990 and 2000 in Nevada, Nebraska, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas and Oregon was more than 200 percent.

Anti-Immigrant Legislation

In 1992, in the Arizona border town of Nogales, a number of plaintiffs brought a lawsuit, Flores v. Arizona against the school district, accusing it of not allotting enough money or qualified staff to emergent bilingual programs. A series of rulings has ordered the state legislatures to increase state funding for language education, but the Republican-controlled state House and Arizona Department of Education (ADE) have consistently fought the measure.

As a response to a recent ruling, ADE and the legislature have said they will allocate $400 million more in funding – which equates to $250 per student, according to Jeff Bale, a professor of language and language education in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and former public educator – if schools implement Structured English immersion. This new model separates emergent bilinguals from their peers and immerses them in English-only instruction.

A court challenge to this succeeded in declaring the funding for the model insufficient, but ADE appealed to the Supreme Court who head the case in June 2009 but then returned it to the lower courts, which according to Bale effectively means “leaving the central issues in legal limbo.”

Arizona is not the only state whose legislature advocated against comprehensive bilingual education – California’s 1998 Prop. 227 required all public school instruction to be in English – but it has taken its fight to a new degree.

Arizona’s HB 2281 has banned the school district from offering any courses that are designed for students primarily of a certain race, as well as courses that “promote the overthrow of the US government … or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” – at the risk of losing up to ten percent of their funding. The state has also told schools state-wide that teachers with “heavy” or “ungrammatical” accents are no longer allowed to teach English classes.

For the average first- or second-generation immigrant child in Arizona, Rodriguez, said, “What they are receiving is very hostile messages.”

“I’m not so much of a bilingual education proponent just for the sake of it,” Rodriguez said. “Any program can be good given the right climate – absent racism and hostility. As a method I think most of us know that bilingual education and dual immersion are the best, but if you have hate all around you it doesn’t matter – you are still going to get bombarded. A conducive environment is important over any method.”

The View from the Ground

A report by the Urban Institute in 2005 found that 70 percent of emergent bilinguals nationwide are concentrated in only 10 percent of schools, the majority of which are in urban and poor areas. Therefore, according to Jeff Bale, this “super-segregation” means that schools with an emergent bilingual population of 25 percent or more have 77 percent of students of color, of which more than half are Latino. More than three-quarters of these students received free or reduced-price school lunches, a federal measure of poverty and highlighting the fact that an estimated 75 percent of emergent bilinguals are poor.

In schools where more than 25 percent of the students are emergency bilinguals, only 52 percent of teachers are fully certified, compared to 76 percent in other schools, the Urban Institute Report noted. Of the 43 percent of teachers with emergent bilinguals in their classroom (1.2 million teachers), only 11 percent were fully certified in bilingual education, 18 percent in English as a second language and 15 percent fluent in another language. On average, Bale noted, in the past five years the teachers had received an average of four hours of in-service training in working with emergent bilinguals.

There are many varying models of bilingual education. The predominant model in the U.S. is transitional bilingual education. This theory is based on the idea that children acquire fluency in a second language most easily by acquiring fluency in their native language, and most often targets students between Kindergarten and third grade. At first, the home language is used 90 percent of the time and English 10 percent of the time, until by 3rd grade the ratios have been reversed.

Bale said, “This approach to English language learning has as its goal English language acquisition, not developing the home language. In practice, these models are meant only for language minority students. As such, they are predicated on a deficit model, that is, that non-English proficiency is a problem to remediate through temporary bilingual education.”

Less common are maintenance or development models, which are based on maintaining proficiency in the student’s home language which also developing literacy and proficiency in the second language. This model is known as dual language, and schools using this approach also integrate English-only speaking students to learn with emergent bilinguals.

However, the benefits for students of both these approaches come up against the bulwark of standardized testing, which is administered only in English. Under the 2001 reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), all high-stakes testing must be done in English.

While NCLB increased overall federal support for bilingual education by $500 million, the testing requirement resulted in a shift to English-only approaches aimed at test scores.

NCLB’s use of testing measures as a way to allocate Title 1, or additional, funding only exacerbates the likelihood that schools with emergent bilinguals will continue to have teacher with less training. Competitive grants under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program may further increase this inequality.

When the testing measure was first introduced in Chicago in 2008, Arne Duncan, then CEO of Chicago Public Schools and now U.S. Secretary of Education, said, “We’ll have some zeros. It’s heart-breaking.”

Eric Gutstein, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education and former mathematics teacher, said, “If your home language is not the language that the test is in, it is inevitable that you will be slower, so the data is clear that students whose home language is not English do not score as well on the test. There is plenty of evidence that the tests are used to keep people out of all kinds of things.”

The disparities faced by English-language learners in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) can be seen in the overall performance of the district, said Diane Zendejas, chief officer of the Office of Language and Cultural Education.

In 2007, about 45 percent of the 4,500 students who transitioned out of bilingual education in CPS met the three-year benchmark, compared to 70 percent in the rest of the state. An investigation by the education newsmagazine Catalyst also found that, in 2006, 71 percent of students who transitioned out of bilingual programs two years earlier still failed to meet reading standards and 60 percent failed to meet math standards. Statewide, the rates for reading and math standards failure of transitioned students are 53 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

What Bilingual Education Brings to the Table

Gutstein said the treatment of English-language learners – “The idea that we know that people come to a new country and they don’t speak the language and they are punched in a setting where they cannot continue to learn” – is an example of language discrimination.

“The main thing is that research on bilingual education is pretty clear – to be competent in a second language takes years in the school system,” Gutstein continued. “People’s home languages are not a problem, they are a resource to draw on.”

Dr. Danette Maldonado, principal of the Wharton K-8 Dual Language Academy in Houston, Texas, said that much of the reason she thought educators blocked more liberal bilingual policies was because of their misunderstanding of literacy attainment versus speech attainment. At a young age, Maldonado said, children “are not really learning, they are actually acquiring,” which means that it is a chance for them to become fluent in two languages.

Because “Texas is getting brown [in people] and grayer” economically, “it’s an imperative that we prepare these children to be brilliant,” regardless of their status or linguistic background, Maldonado said. Her school is about 50/50 native Spanish speakers and students who are native English speakers, or have other languages as their home language.

Bale, who was a public educator before becoming a professor, also asserted that most linguistic research agrees on the benefits of bilingual education. He also noted the unexplored benefits of being in a bilingual environment: “It is important to underscore that no recent research comparing English-only versus bilingual models has found English-only approaches to be more effective at teaching English. In fact, most program model comparisons have shown bilingual models to be more effective for acquisition of English. Moreover, no accepted body of research recognizes the validity of teaching language by reducing the language to specific aspects of grammar, which is the model in Arizona discussed in the previous section.”

He also noted a particular contradiction in the way language is taught, one he found particularly stark when he worked as a public school teacher in Arizona. At this school, Bale taught students who had recently moved from Mexico while in an adjacent building, English-speaking students were learning Spanish as a second language, but because there was no infrastructure set up the students were not able to share their insights and experiences with each other.

“Of course, there are long-standing elite programs in bilingual education as well. Such programs are often set up in private schools, or as magnet programs within public systems, and target English monolinguals as their main audience. These programs speak to the schizophrenic nature of language education in the United States,” Bale said. “Foreign language” education, i.e. English monolinguals learning additional languages at school whether through bilingual models or not, has existed for over 100 years as a gatekeeping project to get into university. Students who enter school, however, already fluent in a non-English language, are construed as a problem, at times even an outright threat. The balance of the twelve years of schooling functions to rob students of their language and replace it with academic English.”

The prevailing rhetoric often assumes that immigrants push for bilingual education because they are not interested in learning English. For Margarita, a secretary at the Wharton Dual Language Academy in Houston and Mexican immigrant, this is not the case at all.

Margarita waived bilingual education for her three America-born children, opting instead to help her children learn and master their Spanish at home.

Through the interpretation of Maldonado, Margarita, who has been in the United States 27 years, said that while she did not choose the bilingual path for her family, she nevertheless thought it was essential that families have the choice of bilingual education.

According to Maldonado, about 10 percent of bilingual families opt out of bilingual education in Texas.

To ensure that the choice exists, Bale says it is essential for two groups who do not traditionally work together to join forces. The immigrant rights movement and the education movement must join forces, he said.

In the classroom, “The most important thing teachers can do is make direct connections between what they teach and how they teach and make a movement, connected to outside struggle. See that the interplay between attacks on language rights in school and broader attacks on immigrant rights is noted.”

“The education of emergent bilingual students remains misunderstood in large part because so little attention is paid to how past movement against racism and for immigrant rights have improved the education of all children, but especially of emergent bilingual students,” Bale said. “While effective classroom practices and sympathetic policies matter, they wilt in the face of segregation, racism and attacks on immigrant rights.”

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