Bilingual Education: A Critique

views updated

Bilingual Education: A Critique

Essay excerpt

By: Peter Duignan

Date: 1992

Source: The Hoover Institution. "Bilingual Education: A Critique." 〈〉 (accessed July 9, 2006).

About the Author: Peter J. Duignan is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. The Hoover Institution is a public policy research center devoted to the study of politics, economics, and political economy. Peter J. Duignan has extensive experience researching and writing in a wide range of domestic and international policy areas. His areas of expertise include immigration to the United States and Hispanics in the United States.


The essay "Bilingual Education: A Critique" highlights the impact that recent waves of non-English-speaking immigrants have had on the educational system in the United States and how approaches to the education of non-English-speaking children have changed over time. Although this excerpt focuses on the period from 1986 onwards, there has been a fierce debate in the United States about bilingual education ever since it was introduced in the 1960s. The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 first required states to provide education in the first languages of Limited English Proficient (LEP) children for one year, at which stage it was considered they should be sufficiently proficient in English to transfer into mainstream English-language education. The legislation was underpinned by research evidence from a 1953 UNESCO study that indicated that immigrant children who were initially educated in their native language did better at school than those who were taught in the language of their new country from their arrival in the educational system.

During the 1970s, however, the nature of bilingual education in the United States changed, partly in response to the landmark Lau v. Nichols case of 1974, in which it was ruled that non-English-speaking Chinese students in San Francisco were being denied access to and participation in educational programs since all the teaching and teaching materials were in English. Following this case, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts should be required to take "affirmative steps" to address the language issues that prevented non-English-speaking children from having equal access to educational programs. From this point onwards, bilingual education was no longer employed primarily as a transitional measure to ease LEP students into mainstream education; it became a parallel scheme offering ongoing education in native languages. It was also increasingly seen as a tool to promote multiculturalism in American society. The growing importance of and federal funding for bilingual education programs was largely the result of political lobbying by influential immigrant groups such as Hispanic Americans, who argued that the reasons for the low educational attainment and high drop-out rate of their children included their difficulties in English and various ways in which they were discriminated against in the mainstream education system.

In 1986, the Legalization Program of the Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for many thousands of undocumented residents, mostly from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and swelled the school population with non-English-speaking children. Federal funding was provided for numerous bilingual education programs across the country, especially in states and cities with large numbers of immigrant families. Between 1985 and 1990, the number of LEP students in U.S. schools reportedly increased by fifty-one percent, with around three-quarters believed to be Spanish-speaking. By the late 1990s, at least five percent of all public school children in grades K-12 were LEP students.

Since its inception, there has never been any consensus about the value of bilingual education for non-English-speaking students. Those in favor of bilingual education argue that it enables immigrant children to keep up with their English-speaking peers, particularly in subjects such as mathematics and science. Critics of the system believe that it delays the development of proficiency in English and can have an adverse impact on successful assimilation into American society. The findings of research into the benefits of bilingual education have been inconclusive but have provided some evidence of higher educational achievement among those LEP students who did receive some bilingual education.

Bilingual education has also become controversial for other reasons, closely tied in with the wider immigration debate. While multiculturalists have supported it as a way of helping immigrant groups to retain their language and cultural identity, the anti-immigration movement has argued that immigrants already in the United States should be required to learn English and assimilate into American culture. Many resent the use of federal funding for immigrant education programs, while even within the immigrant population there have been arguments about the relative allocation of funding among ethnic groups.


Bilingual education since 1986 The legalization of illegal immigrants in 1986 brought millions of Asians and Spanish speakers to the United States. Schools became more crowded in big cities that had large Spanish-speaking populations. The flood of illegals continued as well, further inundating the schools and public services.

In the previous peak years of immigration (1900–1910), the old immigrants, however diverse, all derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The new immigrants include not only Hispanics, but also Muslims, Confucians, Buddhists, adherents of Shinto, and votaries of Voodoo. Given such cultural multiplicity, and bilingualism and cultural maintenance programs—anti-immigrationists argue—the United States may split linguistically and spiritually in future.

Immigration has had numerous unintended consequences. The old-style immigrant was usually a European. Since 1965, the new-style immigrant mostly comes from Asian, Latin American, or Caribbean countries whose political and social traditions greatly differ from those of the United States. The new immigrants (much like previous immigrants), moreover, have higher birthrates than the natives. Hence immigrants have a disproportionately powerful impact on the United States' demographic composition and school population. The post-1970 population growth, according to demographer Leon F. Bouvier, is nearly all due to immigration. (Immigrants now account for 37.1 percent of all new population growth, compared with 27 percent at the peak years of immigration.)

Does this matter? Did not the United States, in the olden days, successfully absorb Irish, Germans, Poles, and many other nationalities? True enough, argue the anti-immigrationists. But the position has changed. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States had a confident core culture. The United States insisted that newcomers should assimilate and learn English—and so they did; there was little or no bilingual education. By contrast, the new immigrants come at a time when the cultural self-reliance of the United States has eroded. Mexican and Asian activists have learned from the civil rights struggles conducted by black Americans and thus demand bilingual education and seek group rights, "brown pride," and restoration of "brown dignity," while rejecting assimilation and Western culture. The new immigrants, or rather their self-appointed spokespeople, now desire official recognition as groups and proportional representation—requirements incompatible with the operation of a free market. Group rights are demanded in the makeup of electoral districts, in employment, in the awarding of official contracts, in education, in every sphere of public life. Opposition to such programs, it is falsely claimed, is yet one more proof of white America's inherent racism.

Multiculturists want to preserve immigrant cultures and languages, not absorb or assimilate the American culture. (The melting-pot metaphor is rejected by multiculturists.) The United States, the anti-immigration argument continues, therefore must restrict immigration and at the same time promote cultural assimilation. Otherwise multiculturalism will lead to political fragmentation and disaster. Imagine the United States as a Bosnia of continental proportions—without a sense of common nationhood, a common language and culture, a common political heritage, with dozens of contending ethnic groups and a population of half a billion! These problems will become even harder to face because immigration has exacerbated income inequalities within the United States, worsened the economic prospects of poorly educated black Americans and recent Hispanic immigrants, disrupted local communities, and—through sheer force of numbers—further injured the environment. The United States, argue critics such as Peter Brimelow, will in the long run cease to be a mainly white nation; its ethnic character will be transformed—this without proper policy discussion and against the declared will of America's overwhelming majority. Nativists are accused of hysteria when they talk about a threatened Mexican reconquista of California. Nativists incur equal censure when they charge foreign-born activists with scorning the anglo-sajones and their values. But nativist fears merely reflect the ethnic propaganda common in campus rallies held by ethnic militants.

Critics of immigration such as Brimelow (Alien Nation) doubt that assimilation can work today as it once did. The number of Hispanic immigrants is growing; affirmative action, bilingual education, and multiculturalism are roadblocks to assimilation and Americanization. The new immigrants are less well educated than previous immigrants, are not forced to learn English, and enter a labor market ill equipped for well-paying jobs. Wages for the unskilled have actually declined in the 1980s and 1990s, and new illegal immigrants will work for lower wages, thus replacing earlier immigrants.

In the field of public education the Americanizing of immigrant children has fallen into disrepute. The method of teaching English by the immersion method has been widely replaced by bilingual education (now required by nine states in all school districts with a designated number of limited-English-proficient [LEP] students). In Massachusetts, twenty LEP students in one language group in a district will trigger native-language instruction, even if there are only two students in each grade in a separate classroom taught by a certified bilingual teacher. As a result, forty thousand students in fifty-one Massachusetts school districts received bilingual education in 1993–94. Spanish-speaking students, who represent more than half of the LEP population in Massachusetts, are taught to read and write Spanish and also are instructed in Spanish in other academic subjects. But thousands of Cape Verdeans are instructed in a pidgin Portuguese-Crioulo—though the majority do not know the language; indeed in Cape Verde only Portuguese is taught since Crioulo is a spoken language, not a written one. Teachers in Massachusetts had to invent and print up Crioulo materials. Such examples have intensified the debate on bilingual education.

A recent study by the National Research Council, however, found that the arguments in favor of bilingual education were based on a number of myths. There was no evidence of long-term advantages in teaching LEP children in their native language. Further, teaching these children to read in English first, not in their native language, did them no harm. In contrast, emphasizing cultural and ethnic differences in the classroom was counterproductive. It caused stereotyping, did not improve the self-esteem of minority children, and reinforced the differences of these children from the others. Nor was there any research support for the idea that teachers who were themselves members of minority groups were more effective than others who worked with children from those same groups. The study concluded that the U.S. Department of Education's management of bilingual education research had been a total failure, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars, using the research agenda for political purposes to justify a program that had not proven its worth, and keeping its research from educators who could use it to improve their school programs.

I agree with Charles L. Glenn, a bilingual specialist, who insists that there is no reason to spend more years searching for a "model" teaching program, while another generation of language-minority students is damaged by inferior schooling. And there is certainly no reason to put any future research in the hands of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA).

I would leave considerable latitude to local authorities to determine their own needs in public education. But I reject "cultural maintenance" as a legitimate object of public education. U.S. citizens and residents alike have an indefeasible right to speak whatever language, and practice whatever customs they please in their own homes. But the aim of public education should be to assimilate the immigrants—not to preserve their status as cultural aliens. (Assimilation means to learn English, become part of American society, follow American laws, values, and institutions, and know American history—in short, become Americanized.) Bilingualism not only divides Americans but also limits Latinos' job and education opportunities because of their poor English and low graduation rates.


By the late 1990s, there was increasing evidence that bilingual education was not achieving its objectives of improving the educational and economic performance of non-English-speaking immigrants such as Latinos. Some argued that the programs actually exacerbated the problems of such groups.

In 1998, the state of California abolished most of its bilingual education programs under Proposition 227 and replaced these with one-year English-immersion programs. Arizona followed suit in 2000 and Massachusetts in 2002. Under English-immersion programs, teaching is mainly in English, with the students' native language used only for the purpose of clarifying and explaining points. Although immigrant student test scores in California improved following Proposition 227, it has been argued that the improvements were due to factors unrelated to the abolition of bilingual education. A number of longitudinal studies have indicated that there is little difference in educational attainment between students who receive bilingual education and those who receive English-immersion education.

One of the main problems with bilingual education is that there has been a lack of adequately trained teachers and high-quality teaching materials, making it difficult to assess the impact of this type of education. Evaluations of bilingual programs are also complicated by a range of factors such as immigrant segregation into disadvantaged areas and schools.



Brisk, Maria Estela. Bilingual Education: From Compensatory to Quality Schooling. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.


Gersten, Russell and John Woodward. "The Language-Minority Student and Special Education: Issues, Trends, and Paradoxes." Exceptional Children 60 (2000).

Mora, Marie T. "English-Language Assistance Programs, English-Skill Acquisition and the Academic Progress of High School Language Minority Students." Policy Studies Journal 28 (2000).

Web sites

The Hoover Institution. "Bilingual Education: A Critique." 〈〉 (accessed July 9, 2006).

About this article

Bilingual Education: A Critique

Updated About content Print Article