Bilingual Education and Latino Civil Rights
While the population of language minority children in the nation makes up a substantial part of the student population, and continues to grow, their educational civil rights have come under increasing scrutiny and attack over the past decade. All students have the right to be provided access to content area knowledge. Bilingual education, or teaching through the native language, has been an important technique for providing that right to English language learners. However, the use of this educational technique has been increasingly criticized and eroded over the past ten years. To look at this broad issue, I will examine the history of civil rights for language minority children, the assumptions behind the attack on bilingual education, and suggest responses to safeguard the rights of language minority students.
The number of English language learning (ELL) students in the U.S. has grown dramatically in the last decade. According to a 1991 national study, there are over 2,300,000 students in grades K through 12 who are English language learners (August & Hakuta, 1997). This number has grown by over 1,000,000 since 1984. The majority of these students are Spanish-speakers (73%), followed by Vietnamese-speakers (3.9%). Because the overwhelming proportions of ELL students are Spanish speakers, the issue of bilingual education is largely a Latino one. No other language group makes up more than 4% of limited English proficient students. What complicates the issue of education for language minority students is their low socioeconomic status. 80% of ELL students are poor, and most attend schools where the majority of students also live in poverty and are English language learners. There is some difference in the level of poverty among language groups. Here, again, Latinos are disproportionately represented: 57% of Spanish-speaking families earn less than $20,000 compared to, for example, only 35% of families where Asian/Pacific Island languages are spoken (McArthur, 1993). Poverty has many implications for educational achievement, for example, parents’ educational attainment mirror income levels, and parents’ educational achievement is highly linked to that of their children’s.
Despite the high number of ELL students, it is difficult to know, because of lack of data to see what type of educational programs they participate in. According to Prospects, a 1995 national survey, reading and math were taught in programs using bilingual education in less than half of first and third grade classrooms serving limited English proficient students. Offered more frequently were programs where instruction was offered only in English, or where instructional aides, not teachers, were the vehicles for native language instruction. Conclusions about participation rates in different programs vary; another study suggests that 33% of ELL students nationwide are enrolled in ESL or immersion programs, while 57% receive some native language instruction, from either a teacher or an instructional aide (Fleischman, ; Hopstock, 1993).
More is known about program availability in California than nationwide. While doubt over what makes up bilingual education also exists at the state level, it appears that less than a third of California’s ELL children receive bilingual education, therefore somewhat less than nationwide. Of these, the overwhelming majorities, over 95% are Latino. The other 70% of ELL students not participating in bilingual education are in English only programs. Some of these programs use the method “Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English”, so as to make content more understandable to students. Others offer only English language development, or a combination of the two programs. Some programs also offer informal support in the native language. However, more than one in five (21%) ELL students in English only programs receive no special services at all, despite state and federal law stipulating that some program must be in place. This brought a concern to my head, that students without the help are stuck in a circle with no one to help. “It appears that Hispanics will continue to dominate the rolls of the limited-English-proficient in classrooms of the twenty-first century” (Carger 8).
Bilingual education is a legacy of the “Great Society” programs of the 1960s. During that time, in a symbol to the Latino community, which had been largely overlooked by past civil rights legislation, Congress passed the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, or Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Act. Title VII provided a financial reason for school districts to apply bilingual education. While the Act seemed by many as largely symbolic because of its low level of funding, it did serve to highlight the primacy of native language instruction as a means of giving voice and access to a largely ignored community of students. I paid attention that by supporting the use of bilingual education; Title VII defined students’ educational civil rights as the right to learn content matter as well as the right to learn English. Also, by funding only bilingual education programs, Title VII defined native language instruction as the preferred technique for limited English proficient students. Additionally, by arguing for the importance of bilingualism to national security and economic competitiveness, Title VII is the closest that the United States has come to defining a national language policy.
While California continues to have some of the strictest laws protecting educational rights for English language learners, in the last decade those laws have come under increasing attack. Critics have focused on the state’s choice of bilingual education as the best technique to fulfill those rights. While bilingual education puts attention to students’ right to learn content knowledge, society tends to focus almost only on the importance of learning English and therefore support instruction only in English. Critics of bilingual education have used multiple strategies to undermine native language instruction, including politics, legislation, and ballot ideas.
The first major attack against California’s bilingual education laws occurred in 1987, when governor Deukmejian allowed the Chacon-Moscone Bilingual Bicultural Law to sunset. Despite the fact that the requirements of the law technically remain in effect, the governor’s failure to support the law weakened the legislative mandate for bilingual education that had previously existed in California. Since the sunset of the Chacon-Moscone Bilingual Bicultural Law California legislature has failed to pass a new bilingual education bill.
Attacks on bilingual education are based on popular feeling and beliefs, including: fear of a growing immigrant population, frustration with the ineffectiveness of schools that serve poor students, and myths about bilingualism and second language gaining. Due to increased birth rates and levels of immigration, California is presently experiencing a dramatic rise in its minority population. These dramatic changes have led to a criticism against immigration. Some Americans perceive immigrants as poor and lacking in the “American” values of hard work, careful and delaying pleasure. Therefore they see immigrants as a threat to already stretched-thin social services, the job market and the cultural character of the United States. Popular belief tells us that assimilating immigrants into the American malnstream by teaching them English, and going ahead its use, starting in school, can combat these problems. Another argument against bilingual education poses from the public’s annoyance with the hopelessness of schools that serve poor children. Because 80% of students who are limited English proficient are also poor, most bilingual education programs are found in schools with high concentrations of poverty. High poverty schools have been largely unsuccessful in raising academic achievement levels of their students, no matter what their language background. As a result of the linkage between unsuccessful schools and bilingual education, the public associates bilingual programs with schooling that has been largely unsuccessful. Therefore, any alternative program, no matter how untested, tends to look promising when compared with bilingual education.
Another regularly cited argument against bilingual education is that immigrants remain in ethnic holdbacks and do not learn English, so they need as much exposure to English as possible while in school. In contrast to this belief, immigrants today are learning English at an even faster rate than generations past. Linguistic assimilation occurs today within two generations, as opposed to three generations in the early 1900s (Crawford, 1995). The Latino community experiences the fastest adaptation to English of any language community. While immigrants are learning English faster than ever, it is true that California immigrants live in increasingly segregated settings. Immigrants usually move first to cities, and cities in the U.S. are highly segregated, and becoming more so because of increased immigration and poverty. This response is a strong course of action and is needed to shore up the educational civil rights of language minority children in the U.S. This course of action will depend on the gathering and effective giving out of information about educational programs that serve language minority children. Chris Carger reflecting on my letter accentuates that as being this Polish American she was stricken by the same disadvantages, but always kept her head up to achievement. She mentions the only way your going to change something is by working inside the system. My decision in Spanish education and why I am so involved with this issue became clearer.
As a part of this effort, there is a need for a serious effort to include English language learners in the states assessment and accountability system that goes beyond the measurement of their progress in English language development. Evaluation of programs for English language learners will also have to take content area progress as well as English language development into account. In addition, a research agenda is needed which supports the growth of knowledge about educational programs that serve the needs of minority language students. Research should include the creation of theory-based involvements that are evaluated in a regular and informative manner. The search for evaluation of program works, which are sensitive to local goals, resources and populations. As the educational achievement of minority language students is often tied to issues of poverty as well as limited English proficiency, research should also examine how larger sociopolitical conditions affect student outcomes. An additional goal of research should be how best to inform the public about issues concerning the educational civil rights of language minority children. Like Freire says, ” Those who work for liberation must not take advantage of the emotional dependence of the oppressed-dependence that is the fruit of the concrete situation of the domination which surrounds them and which engendered their unauthentic view of the world” (Freire 66). Meaning that the only ones who are going to break out of this circle of oppression, are the educated ones. As I continued reading his philosophy I strive to gain concept of both sides of this educational matter and came up with my quote. “We worked to long for something to stop us, so we have to continue in achieving the goals of prevailing in life”.
August, D. & Hakuta, K (1997) Improving schooling for language-minority children. Washington D.C. National Press.
Carger, C. (1996) Of Borders and Dreams A Mexican- American Experience of Urban Education. New York, NY. Teachers College Press
Crawford, J. (1995). Bilingual education: History Politics Theory and practice. Los Angeles: Bilingual Education Services.
Fleischman, H.L., & Hopstock, P.J. (1993). Descriptive study of services to Limited English Proficient students, Volume I. Summary of Findings and Conclusions. , U.S. Department of Education by Development Associates, Inc., Arlington, VA.
Freire, P. (1970) The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY. The Continuum International Publishing Group.
McArthur, E.K. (1993). Language characteristics and schooling in the United States, A changing picture: 1979 and 1989. National Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Document number NCES 93-699. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.