The Political Paradox of Bilingual Education
By James Crawford

Enacted at the apex of the Great Society, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 passed Congress without a single voice raised in dissent. Americans have spent the past thirty years debating what the law was meant to accomplish. Was it intended primarily to assimilate limited-Englishproficient (LEP) children more efficiently? To teach them English as rapidly as possible? To encourage bilingualism and biliteracy? To remedy academic underachievement and high dropout rates? To raise the self-esteem of minority students? To promote social equality? Or to pursue all of these goals simultaneously? The bill’s legislative history provides no definitive answer.

It is hardly an idle question. Whether to continue teaching LEP students in two languages is now a matter of public debate throughout the United States. Since the mid-1980s, critics have won increasing support for the contention that this experiment, while well-intentioned, has failed to meet expectations. Now policy-makers are seriously considering demands to limit or even dismantle the program. California voters have already chosen the latter course. Proposition 227, a ballot initiative approved in June 1998, eliminates most native-language instruction in a state with 40 percent of the nation’s LEP students. The future of bilingual education is suddenly in doubt.

Ironically, research provides considerably more support for bilingual approaches today than it did in 1968, when few program models existed and almost none had been evaluated. What seemed reasonable in theory – that investing in children’s native-language development should ultimately pay cognitive and academic dividends – has now been borne out in practice. Not that success has been universal for all approaches labeled bilingual. Nor has research proved ‘conclusively,’ beyond a reasonable doubt, their superiority over English-only methodologies for all children in all contexts. By a more reasonable standard, however, a preponderance of the evidence favors the conclusion that well-designed bilingual programs can produce high levels of school achievement over the long term, at no cost to English acquisition, among students from disempowered groups (see, e.g. Ramírez et al., 1991; August and Hakuta, 1997; Greene, 1998).

Pedagogically speaking, these research findings are excellent news. They confirm that developing fluent bilingualism and cultivating academic excellence are complementary, rather than contradictory, goals. It is not necessary to sacrifice LEP students’ native-language skills to teach them effectively in English. Moreover, the findings suggest that, while language is not the only barrier to school success for these children, approaches that stress native-language instruction can be helpful in overcoming other obstacles such as poverty, family illiteracy, and social stigmas associated with minority status. These challenges are formidable, to be sure, requiring schools to replicate effective program models, adapt them to local conditions, train and retrain teachers, develop curriculum and materials, encourage parent participation, and pay attention to a host of other practical details. Yet they are hardly insuperable, provided there is a commitment to improve programs for English learners.

Politically speaking, however, the research findings are less encouraging. They support an educational rationale for bilingual instruction that is both complex and counter-intuitive to members of the public. They also imply a sociopolitical goal that few Americans are inclined to endorse: the legitimation of bilingualism in public contexts. Since the mid-1980s, many US voters have reacted defensively against the racial, cultural, and language diversity brought by rising levels of immigration. This has led to a nationwide campaign for ‘the legal protection of English,’ resulting in numerous laws restricting the use of other languages

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