Structurally ineffective bilingual education for language minority students is a controversial concept that invokes heated arguments among those people in and associated with many of the nation’s educational systems. Bilingual education, in most cases, is the instruction of a student’s core classes, such as history, math, and science, in his or her native language and the instruction of a supplementary English as a Second Language course. For decades, much of the debate surrounding this type of bilingual instruction in classrooms with language minority students has focused on whether or not the students will learn English better by being completely immersed in English or by being initially instructed in their native language. Many English-only advocates and other opponents of bilingual education have passionately discredited its effectiveness and tend to argue that immersion quickens second language acquisition by stressing only the new language. On the other hand, proponents of bilingual education claim that a gradual transition to English via native language instruction assures student success because the students will be able to use their previously acquired knowledge to help them learn the English language. However, despite the well-intended concerns of the public and academic community, the controversy that swirls around second language acquisition does not focus on some of the aspects of bilingual education that should be improved in order to make the programs more effective.
Although ample evidence favors bilingual education as a means to help students grow academically, structural flaws such as bilingual education programs that allow children to suffer too long in ineffective or unsuitable programs and a lack of bilingually qualified teachers prevent many programs from accomplishing the most that they can accomplish. In order to address these issues, educators should pursue a focused debate that concentrates on how the students who are acquiring English will best acquire the skills and literacy that will benefit them in school and out of school instead of arguing whether bilingual education is detrimental or beneficial to language minority students. Bilingual education programs are most effective when the properly trained bilingual teachers are available to instruct the language minority students.
In order to provide students with the most effective and most comprehensible methods of instruction, teachers need to be trained in such areas as combining English as a second language instruction with content area instruction. They need to be able to transform contemporary research on literacy and language acquisition into realistic instructional strategies. Finally, they need to be able to encourage students to think and reason and to use English to express their ideas. A combination of such abilities would make bilingual education instructors more productive in the classroom.
Unfortunately, however, some of the bilingual instructors are not sufficiently qualified for the job. The problem is especially severe in non-Spanish languages. Since the major minority population in the United States speaks Spanish, speakers of others languages are in smaller percentage in some schools. This situation poses the problem of finding bilingual teachers in other languages such as Vietnamese or Russian. The first struggle that school administrators must overcome is finding teachers that speak the minority language of a group of students in a particular school. Then, however, once teachers are found they have to be evaluated as to whether they have the proper credentials and adequate training in second language acquisition for the job. In addition to the lack of highly qualified bilingual teachers in languages other than Spanish, the heavy demand for Spanish-language instructors creates many new problems as well. For example, one of the reasons that quality bilingual education teachers are so rare is that many school districts must pay a premium to attract bilingual teachers and some even have to go to foreign countries to try and recruit them.
However, this situation can ultimately lead to other complications and problems because some teachers are dishonest and have fraudulent credentials in order to get the paid premium and the job. For instance, the Houston Independent School District once unknowingly recruited teachers that had falsified college degrees and teaching certificates, cheated on competency tests, violated their visas and continued to work in the United States, and spoke no English. Such problems like those that Houston’s school district face, make finding qualified bilingual education teachers harder than it already is because educators have to work beyond finding bilingual instructors and truly test the credentials of the instructors. Having qualified bilingual teachers is extremely important in the instruction of language minority students and is evident in the following study done by Tesol Quarterly.
The study was done over a five-day observational period and was used to test the effectiveness of bilingual education programs. The school Tosol’s research team visited, whose name was kept confidential, was located in a Hispanic section of a town. In that particular school, 70% of the students were Hispanic, 10 % were Asian, 10% African American, and 10% were Anglo. Thus, the mainstream was Hispanic. In the school, three Spanish-English bilingual teachers and two Spanish-English bilingual aids staffed the program. Because of their fluency, these teachers and aids could check comprehension or explain an activity to Spanish speakers with beginning-level proficiency in English.
The teachers at this particular school helped to make the program successful because without the proper instruction available to the large minority population, the students may have to settle for translators that simply convert English instruction over to the student’s native language which does not give students the opportunity to actively take part in practicing English. In addition to being a highly qualified bilingual education teacher, a second thing that must be acquired before they become successful, is teaching students the skills they need to become proficient in English is the awareness of the theories underlying many of the techniques they are encouraged to use with their students.
However, many of the current bilingual education programs employ teachers that do not meet those qualifications. In other words, they are not knowledgeable of practices and theological bases that are effective in instructing their students. If these teachers empowered themselves with the ability to conduct their own research in order to find out what instructional techniques would be the most beneficial for their students then they would most likely be of a better service to their students.
The Spanish Dual Literacy Program or “Mini School” at Liberty High School in New York is a prime example of how proper and adequate methods of instruction and qualified teachers to implement the programs can tremendously benefit students learning a second language. In the bilingual education classroom, students work with bilingual teachers from Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and the United States who are genuinely interested in the program and the learning students. These dedicated teachers can build on their own bilingual experiences, develop relevant lesson plans, and use suitable and practical class activities and homework assignments.
Even though the success of this program is not solely due to the efforts of the staff, the progress made in the program is partly a result of the highly qualified teachers and their knowledge about what is effective and what is not effective in second language instruction.
Many programs lack qualified bilingual education teachers and the programs to make the instruction really work. As the bilingual education debate continues, one must not only assess the quality of teachers implementing the programs but also take into consideration the amount of time a student spends in the program. Bilingual education programs that teach students entirely in their native language from five to seven years to provide transition to English do not work. They do not result, as promised to do, in better learning of English or other subjects.
First of all, the bilingual education programs in the United States are designed to last approximately five to seven years. However, research shows that it can take an estimated two to three years to attain the basic communication skills in English that are necessary to supply the content area knowledge and academic skills used in a classroom setting. Because there is a measurable difference between the three and seven years of instruction, some students who learn faster than others could be kept in the program longer than they should be.
A seemingly simple solution to this problem could be to exit the program when adequate English fluency is attained, but studies have shown that making such transitions are not as easy as they seem.
For example, an assistant principle in New York admitted to allowing students to graduate without achieving literacy in either Spanish or English. In fact, he admitted that the students in the programs are not allowed to leave the programs when they are ready even if they request it themselves.
Another prime example of students being kept in bilingual education programs too long is demonstrated in the case against the New York State Commissioner of Education. The Bushwick Parents Association, which represents 150 families in Brooklyn, claims that “tens of thousands of immigrant children in New York City have been permitted to languish for six years in bilingual classes, learning neither English nor other subjects very well”. As the previous examples suggest, in many programs, not only are some students kept in programs longer than they need to be, they are also not allowed to exit the program when adequate English literacy skills are acquired.
Most importantly, if instruction in one’s native language lasts too long, then a student who is ready for immersion into the English-only classes will be held back from potential progress. Instead of excelling in English like they would be capable of doing, these students would remain unchallenged in the bilingual education classes. The material would simply be too easy for them. Addressing this issue is Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity (”Learn English” 6). First she notes that prominent bilingual education advocates claim that learning to read first in one’s native language is necessary in learning to read in a second language. Then, clarifying her view on the subject, Chavez states, “in practice this often means that limited-English proficient children will be kept in bilingual programs for years”.
In Chavez’s statement, she directs attention to the problems that arise too many times in bilingual education: students are kept in the system too long. For example, in Hal Netkin’s “English Not Taught here” printed in the Wall Street Journal, he tells how he kept a young boy named Ulises from being held back in a bilingual education program when he was capable of advancing to the English-only classes. He states that he received a call from the school’s bilingual coordinator who told him that Ulises was not ready for the English only classes and should continue to take the bilingual courses. However, Netkin notes that Ulises spoke English better than he spoke his native tongue. In order to observe the benefits of bilingual education programs, he was invited to the second grade classroom. Upon observing how the class worked, he was outraged by the teaching methods used. He noted that the native speakers were taught in one half of the room as a translator translates the lessons into Spanish for the remaining half of the class. He then refused to let Ulises continue to take these classes because he was perfectly capable of entering the English curriculum, and this type of instruction would not benefit him at all. Therefore, according to Netkin, because Ulises’ bilingual education was ceased as soon as he was ready for the transition, he went on to become a normal English proficient student. Without the timely exit from the program, Ulises may have had to languish in a program that no longer served his needs.
This example fully demonstrates how easily a student’s needs can be overlooked and unfilled in many bilingual education programs that last too long.
Although many times students needs are not met in the bilingual education programs, there are times when the proper instruction and length of programs provide an adequate and often superior quality of education. The Spanish Dual Literacy program at Liberty High School is again a positive example of a successful program. The program, which is intended to prepare limited English students for transition into the mainstream high school, combines successful teaching methods with end-of-semester placement to ensure success and advancement of its students.
In order to determine the end-of-semester placement, the “Mini-School” teachers evaluate the academic and social progress of each student. This type of evaluation prevents a student from remaining in a particular level when he or she his ready to move on. Programs that have evaluation systems like those of Liberty High School will have a better chance at ensuring student success.
Considering all of these issues, some of the current bilingual education programs are proven to have flaws that can severely hinder a student’s learning of the English language. The brief portraits of the exemplary programs that contain qualified bilingual education teachers and the flexibility to allow limited English proficient students to exit the program when adequate English skills are acquired are excellent examples of how quality programs can benefit such students.
Unfortunately, however, many of the current programs do not fit that profile. They are structured so that students spend an average of five to seven years in programs that may or may not have qualified teachers to implement the most successful methods of instruction. If educators and policy makers take up the challenge of educating the limited English proficient students in good faith and giving serious and informed consideration to all strategies that can contribute to meaningful educational experiences, perhaps they can move beyond the emotionally and politically heated debate that opposes English-only instruction to native language instruction. With this change in focus, they will be able to concentrate on what methods and structures work best and how to improve the current systems.