Research, Ethics, and Public Discourse:
The Debate on Bilingual Education

Presentation at the National Conference of the
American Association of Higher Education
March 22, 1999
Washington, D.C.

by Jim Cummins
University of Toronto

Few educational issues in North America have become as volatile or as ideologically loaded as the debate on the merits or otherwise of bilingual education. Twenty-five years of debate culminated in June 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227 in California by a margin of 61 to 39 percent. Proposition 227 was aimed at eliminating the use of bilingual children’s first language (L1) for instructional purposes except in very exceptional circumstances.

Research has played a prominent role in this debate. Unfortunately, the research evidence has been interpreted in very different ways by advocates and opponents of bilingual education. In this presentation I want to raise ethical issues about the way in which research evidence has been infused into the public discourse on bilingual education. Unlike courtroom lawyers who advocate for their clients regardless of the merits of the case, academics have an ethical responsibility to analyze the research evidence as objectively as possible and to recommend policy options that are consistent with the evidence. There is also a responsibility to address and to reconcile internal contradictions in their stated positions and interpretation of the research.

The academic debate on bilingual education contrasts markedly with the treatment of the issue in the media. Media articles on bilingual education have tended to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessment of the merits of bilingual programs. [1] By contrast, the academic debate lines up virtually all North American applied linguists who have carried out research on language learning as advocates of bilingual programs against only a handful of academics who oppose bilingual education. None of those who oppose bilingual education has a background in the discipline of applied linguistics. The most prominent of these opposing academics are Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Keith Baker, Christine Rossell, and Charles Glenn. Others such as Nathan Glazer and Herbert Walberg have made occasional forays into the debate to express their scepticism about bilingual education.

In the next section I briefly sketch some interpretations of the research that I believe would be endorsed by a large majority of applied linguists. Then I examine contradictions in the claims of some of the opponents of bilingual education.

The Applied Linguistics Perspective

1. Bilingual programs for minority and majority language students have been successfully implemented in countries around the world. As documented in a recent volume by Cummins and Corson that documented programs in more than 30 countries, students educated for part of the day through a minority language do not suffer adverse consequences in the development of academic skills in the majority language. [2] If there were adverse consequences associated with bilingual instruction, there would hardly be more than 300,000 English-background students in various forms of French-English bilingual programs in Canada.

2. Bilingual education, by itself, is not a panacea for students’ underachievement. Underachievement derives from many sources and simply providing some first language (L1) instruction will not, by itself, transform students’ educational experience. Bilingual instruction can make a significant contribution (as Jay Greene’s meta-analysis outlined below suggests) but the predominant model of bilingual education (quick-exit transitional programs) is inferior to programs that aim to develop bilingualism and biliteracy, such as developmental (late-exit) and two-way bilingual immersion (dual-language). Dual-language programs also serve English-background students in the same classes as minority language students with each group acting as linguistic models for the other.

3. The development of literacy in two languages entails linguistic and perhaps cognitive advantages for bilingual students. There are close to 150 research studies carried out since the early 1960s that report significant advantages for bilingual students on a variety of metalinguistic and cognitive tasks.

4. Significant positive relationships exist between the development of academic skills in L1 and L2. This is true even for languages that are dissimilar (e.g. Spanish and Basque; English and Chinese; Dutch and Turkish). These cross-lingual relationships provide evidence for a common underlying proficiency that permits transfer of academic and conceptual knowledge across languages.

5. Conversational and academic aspects of language proficiency are distinct and follow different developmental patterns. Several large-scale studies have shown that it usually takes at least five years for second language learners to catch up academically to their native English-speaking peers but conversational fluency in English is often attained within two years of intensive exposure to the language. These data are very much at variance with the assumptions of Proposition 227 which provides only one year of intensive English language instruction prior to mainstreaming students into the regular classroom without specific language support.

Doublethink in Research and Policy

The term doublethink was coined by George Orwell in his futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four to refer to the simultaneous belief in two contradictory ideas. The phenomenon is very evident in the academic arguments that have been made against bilingual education. Rosalie Pedalino Porter, for example, argues against transitional bilingual education on the grounds that such programs entail less “time-on-task” than monolingual English programs. [3] Yet in the same book she strongly endorses two-way bilingual immersion programs which have far more L1 instruction for minority students (usually at least 50% L1 from K through 6). According to Porter, such programs promise "mutual learning, enrichment, and respect" (p. 154) and "are also considered to be the best possible vehicles for integration of language minority students, since these students are grouped with English-speakers for natural and equal exchange of skills" (p. 154).

Keith Baker has also jumped on the doublethink bandwagon in providing two totally opposite interpretations of the same program results. The El Paso program was labeled “bilingual immersion” by the district and involved a “native language cognitive development” component of 90 minutes a day at grade 1, gradually reducing to 60 minutes a day by grade 3 and 30 minutes a day by grade 4. In 1992, Baker correctly critiqued Porter’s mis-interpretation of this program as being an all-English program:

    What Porter describes as an all-English immersion program in El Paso is, in fact, a Spanish-English dual immersion program. The El Paso study supports the claims of bilingual education advocates that most bilingual education programs do not use enough of the native language. It does not support Porter's claims that they should use less. [4]

Yet, six years later Baker’s interpretation of this program has changed radically with no explanation of the change for the reader.

    El Paso created an SEI [structured English immersion] program in which Spanish instruction was reduced to 30 minutes a day. The district followed students from this program and from the state-mandated bilingual education program for 12 years. The SEI students scored significantly higher on all tests for 11 straight years. In the 12th year, the SEI students still scored higher, but their advantage was no longer statistically significant, suggesting that, after a decade or so, the harm that bilingual education programs do to learning English is more or less wiped out by continued exposure to English outside the classroom. [5]

It is clearly an extreme example of doublethink to be able to describe in 1992 a program as “a Spanish-English dual immersion program” whose positive results support the “claims of bilingual education advocates that most bilingual education programs do not use enough of the native language” and six years later to describe exactly the same program as a “structured English immersion” program whose positive results illustrate “the harm that bilingual education programs do to learning English.”

Charles Glenn’s major concern with bilingual education has been his perception that such programs segregate bilingual students from the mainstream, potentially contributing to their long-term marginalization in school and society. He fails to acknowledge, however, that segregation in schools is primarily a function of housing and neighborhood concentrations of particular ethnic groups and will exist regardless of the language of instruction. Despite his expressed opposition to bilingual education (as illustrated for example in his support for Proposition 227), Glenn (like Porter) has been an articulate supporter of two-way bilingual programs for language minority (and majority) students. He notes, for example:

    The best setting for educating linguistic minority pupils – and one of the best for educating any pupils – is a school in which two languages are used without apology and where becoming proficient in both is considered a significant intellectual and cultural achievement. [6]

It should be clear at this stage that considerable common ground is emerging between “opponents” and “advocates” of bilingual education. So-called advocates have been highly critical of many quick-exit transitional programs on the grounds that they do not aspire to develop bilingualism or biliteracy and also fail to affirm strongly students’ cultural and linguistic identity. Virtually all applied linguists endorse developmental or two-way bilingual immersion programs in preference to quick-exit transitional bilingual programs. Surprisingly, the same appears true of the so-called “opponents” of bilingual education: they are highly critical of transitional bilingual programs but have strongly endorsed two-way bilingual immersion programs. They have not, however, addressed the contradictions that their endorsement of two-way bilingual programs entails. To argue against bilingual education while at the same time endorsing the most intensive form of bilingual education at the very least requires explanation.

Unlike other academic “opponents” of bilingual education, Christine Rossell has not explicitly endorsed two-way bilingual immersion programs. Yet, her arguments for structured English immersion programs are based overwhelmingly on the documented success of bilingual and trilingual programs. Rossell and Baker reviewed a large number of program evaluations and cite ten research studies which they claim show structured immersion to be superior to transitional bilingual education (TBE). [7] Specifically, they claim that in comparisons of reading performance in TBE versus Structured Immersion, no difference was found in 17 percent and structured immersion was significantly superior to TBE in 83 percent of studies. These statistics sound impressive but they obscure the fact that nine out of ten of the so-called “structured immersion” programs were actually bilingual or trilingual programs. Thus, even though Rossell does not publicly endorse bilingual education, the fact that she relies on the success of bilingual and trilingual programs to make her point constitutes an implicit endorsement of bilingual immersion.

It is worth noting that the Tomas Rivera Center published a review of essentially the same evaluation database by Jay Greene which showed that participation in a bilingual program (defined as one that had instruction through two languages) in the United States contributed a significant increment to academic achievement in comparison to participation in a monolingual English program. [8]

The Ethics of Policy-Related Research

There will always be legitimate differences of opinion in the interpretation of academic research. Scientific progress is made possible by means of dialogue, discussion, and further research designed to resolve the differences. This process of dialogue has not happened in the area of bilingual education. A negative spin on the research to the tune of “bilingual education doesn’t work” has been fed directly to the media and has polluted public discourse on this topic. I use the strong label pollution to convey the fact that the message broadcast by the media ignores the consensus among virtually all North American researchers that (a) countless successful bilingual programs have been implemented in countries throughout the world, and (b) two-way bilingual immersion programs have produced consistently positive outcomes for both language minority and majority students and constitute a viable policy-option for helping to reverse bilingual students’ academic underachievement. I believe that academics, in contrast to courtroom lawyers, have an ethical responsibility to clean up the info-pollution or to publicly admit that they have abandoned academic standards in favor of the standards of adversarial discourse where the goal is to win rather than to contribute to effective policy grounded in solid research.


1. McQuillan, J., & Tse, L. (1996). Does research matter? An analysis of media opinion on bilingual education 1984-1994. Bilingual Research Journal, 20 (1), 1-27.

2. Cummins, J. & Corson, D. (1997). Bilingual education. Vol. 5, International Encyclopedia of Language and Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

3. Porter, R. P. (1990). Forked tongue: The politics of bilingual education. New York: Basic Books.

4. Baker, K. (1992, Winter/Spring). Review of Forked Tongue. Bilingual Basics, pp. 6-7.

5. Baker, K. (1998). Structured English immersion: Breakthrough in teaching limited-English-proficient students. Phi Delta Kappan (November), 199-204. It is worth noting that Baker’s second account of the El Paso findings are highly inaccurate. For example, differences between the programs had disappeared by grade 7, not grade 12.

6. Glenn, C. L. & LaLyre, I. (1991). Integrated bilingual education in the USA. In K. Jaspaert & S. Kroon (Eds.), Ethnic minority languages and education (pp. 37-55). Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger.

7. Rossell, C. H., & Baker, K. (1996). The effectiveness of bilingual education. Research in the Teaching of English, 30, 7-74.

8. Greene, J. P. (1998). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of bilingual education. Claremont, CA: Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. Greene reports that participation in a bilingual program over a period of two years made a difference of about 1/5 of a standard deviation in achievement. Thus, if the English-only student performed at the 26th percentile at the end of those two years, the bilingual student would be at the 34th percentile.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Copyright © 1999 by Jim Cummins. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.