Archive for the ‘The Bilingual Education Debate’ Category

The Bilingual Education Debate

October 2, 2008

This article was written in August, 2001. Since then new data had come out and there are new developments in the field of bilingual education backing up its pedagogical necessity.

I can be reached at

The Bilingual Education Debate by Neil Brick

When I started teaching ESL about six years ago, I hadn’t formed an opinion on bilingual education. I had always enjoyed learning languages and learning about other peoples’ cultures. I found it odd that some of the other teachers in my school would tell their students to not speak Spanish at all in their mainstream (all English) classes, even though the students’ spoke Spanish at home and in their neighborhoods. I didn’t understand why most of the other teachers appeared to have no interest in learning Spanish or the culture of their students. I improved my Spanish at work to the point where I am now almost fluent. Having learned a second language (Spanish), I realized how tiring it must be, especially for a small child, to have to struggle in a second language all day with no breaks.

When students enter the Holyoke School System, they are tested for language dominance and a home language survey is given to the parents, to try to see which language, Spanish or English, is most predominant in their lives. Then a decision is made whether to place them in bilingual education (Spanish and English) or mainstream them (all English). Parents are then notified of this and the fact that they can waiver their child into either program. I have seen children waivered into bilingual against the schools’ recommendations and into mainstreaming as well.

Holyoke itself appears to be a rather segregated society, economically and culturally. Though there is some crossover, for the most part the lower economic strata live in one part of town and the upper in another part of town. The city is also segregated by language (Spanish/English) and culture (Puerto Rican/Anglo). The teachers’ room at our school mirrors this stratification. One side is primarily Anglo and English speaking, the other Puerto Rican and Spanish speaking. For the most part, the Anglo teachers refuse to learn Spanish and a few are even insulted when others speak Spanish around them, claiming it is rude because they don’t understand what is being said. This may or may not be true, but I feel there is in general a lack of understanding of others’ languages and cultures.

Even when outsiders make presentations (even at safety presentations) to the children, often the presenters only speak one language, use big words and speak very fast. There appears to be a lack of understanding as to what level the children are at, and what scaffolding (a step by step development of students’ needs, adding to a student’s knowledge base as they learn the new material) is necessary for children to learn.

While taking the necessary courses to get my ESL certification, I realized that the best way to teach English was to make sure that the childrens’ first oral language and literacy rate is strong. This is because the research shows this, my teaching experiences backed this up and in my opinion, it just makes more sense to teach someone in the language they understand. I decided to write this article partly because I had heard about major changes in bilingual education programs in California and Arizona, with a push toward what is called “Structured English Immersion” or SEI and heard that there was legislation pending in Massachusetts to do this also. Though I do believe the media in Massachusetts has been fairer than most, I have definitely seen a media bias in general against bilingual education, usually not supported by the research. A journal article written in 1996 appears to support my views on this.

In the Bilingual Research Journal (Winter 1996) and article titled, “”Does Research Matter? An Analysis of Media Opinion on Bilingual Education,” concluded that “despite overwhelmingly positive evaluations by researchers of bilingual education programs in the United States, the majority of opinion pieces took positions against such programs.” Writers of the articles they cite didn’t use research to draw their opinions and conclusions. (Vol. 20. No. 1, Pp. 1-27, 1984-1994 McQuillan & Tse,

Bills Introduced to the Legislature this year

Unfortunately, several bills have been sent to the legislature this year that could be very bad for the students I work with. The elimination of bilingual education could severely hurt their chances for academic success. In the Valley, we have a variety of bilingual learners. Some come from homes where first language literacy skills, such as reading, are not taught. This puts them at a disadvantage when they go to public school. Bilingual education would ensure that they have a better chance to succeed academically, by building on language skills they already have.

A bill presented at the State House this year have promoted SEI (Structured English Immersion – little or no first language used in the classroom) which I believe would be very detrimental to bilingual students. Senate Bill 259, by Guy Glodis, states that with exceptions “every school-aged child shall be taught in English by being taught in English. In particular, this shall require that every school-aged child be placed in English language classrooms. Children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally to exceed one year.” The bill does provide for waivers, parental permission to move children to bilingual education programs. However, schools would no longer be able to place children in the language of study that the research shows is best for them, via the previous process of testing and a home language survey.

In a TESOL (Teachers of English of a Second Language) newsletter, Stephen Krashen, bilingual education researcher, has shown why one year of immersion won’t work. “Prof. David Ramirez of California State University at Long Beach reported that children in immersion were nowhere near ready for the mainstream after one year,” even with 70 percent having some English before they started in school. After first grade (two years of immersion), only 21 percent reached the redesignation standard, and after grade 2, 38 percent. Krashen notes that the California Department of Education reports two academic years after 227 (the “immersion” bill) passed, 877,031 students in grades two through 11 have been in school for more than one year and are still classified as limited English proficient. (“Are children ready for the mainstream after one year of “structured English immersion?”” Stephen Krashen – TESOL Newsletter (in press))

Another bill, H. 2678, is more supportive of bilingual education. It was presented by Antonio F. D. Cabral, a Democratic state representative. This one seems to fit the research and my experience better than the other two. Cabral’s bill would allow for more choice for schools and parents. In his “proposed immersion program, students would spend at least 30 percent of their school hours speaking their native language.” It would also allow for “several models being used in schools around the state… Schools would be allowed to offer “two-way” bilingual programs, in which English-speaking and non-English-speaking students learn each other’s languages.” Education Commissioner David Driscoll agreed with Cabral’s bill in concept. (Students fight for bilingual ed – By David Kibbe, Ottaway News Service –

Cabral responded to some of Glodis’ arguments in Commonwealth magazine, “California’s results prove that students in well-implemented bilingual education programs can and do outperform English-language learners in English-immersion programs… Californians Together, an advocacy group, reported that bilingual-program students met or exceeded the performance of all students at the schools used for comparison at most grades and in both reading and mathematics. Sen. Glodis also implies that bilingual education is the cause of a high dropout rate for Latinos. But most Latino students are not in transitional bilingual education. We must conclude that many who drop out are in mainstream (English only) classes.” (

He mentioned that the overwhelming majority of bilingual education students (80 percent) are mainstreamed (into full English classes) in three years or less. Those that aren’t may be in special education or may have little or no education before coming to the United States. He claims that in the past that this sink or swim approach caused a drop out rate of 80 to 90 percent for ELL’s (English Language Learners), and that this is why transitional bilingual education was originally developed. (Set Higher Standards, SouthCoast Today originally printed in Commonwealth magazine).

Outside Influences

Another major player in the debate is Ron Unz, multimillionaire founder of a Palo Alto financial services software from California who has financially and ideologically promoted the idea of SEI by law in California (Prop 227) by spending $700,000, Arizona (Prop 203), New York City and now Colorado. He is interested in funding a similar campaign in Massachusetts. He is looking for a groundswell of public support (he claims that polling he did several years ago showed “overwhelming support”) and getting prominent local people involved, but states that hasn’t happened yet. He also mentioned that he wouldn’t want to be the primary funder, since he doesn’t live here, but did offer $200,000 if a lot of support did appear, especially from people with immigrant backgrounds. Unz claims bilingual education doesn’t work “He maintains that conventional approaches of teaching English to immigrant children hold back their progress and make it harder for them to enter the mainstream work world. Critics say Mr. Unz’s ideas feed anti-immigrant sentiment and that immersion is too difficult for students who need more time and support to learn English.” (Bilingual changes need groundswell – 5/22/01 by Shaun Sutner, Worcester Telegram & Gazette Staff).

Unz visited Massachusetts on 7/31/01 to push for the immersion ballot initiative, which would appear on the November 2002 ballot in Massachusetts. He will need to collect 57,100 signatures to place his initiative on the ballot. (These signatures have been collected.) He claims to have found local supporters, including Chelsea High School principal Lincoln Tamayo, from Cuba, and authors of books critical of bilingual education, Rosalie Pedalino Porter, from Italy and Boston University professor Christine Rossell. (“Bilingual ed law gets a new foe – California man joins Mass. ballot crusade” – By Scott S. Greenberger, Boston Globe 7/31/01)

Research Supporting Bilingual Education

There is a great deal of research supporting bilingual education over immersion. “In 1998-1999, for the third year in a row, students learning English in bilingual education programs scored significantly higher in [English] reading and language than students enrolled in English Only programs, according to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE).” (Stanford 9 English Scores Show – A Consistent Edge For Bilingual Education – by James Crawford – 4/15/01,

The Ramirez dataset (Ramirez, Yuen and Ramey, 1991) states, “Spanish speaking students can be provided with substantial amounts of primary language instruction without impeding their acquisition of English language and reading skills….The data suggest that by Grade 6, students provided with English-only instruction may actually fall further behind their English speaking peers. Data also document that learning a second language will take six or more years’.” (Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 2nd Ed., Colin Baker, Multilingual Matters Ltd., c 1996 p.213-215)

In a Thomas and Collier study, with findings from five large urban and suburban school districts with more than 700,000 language minority student records from 1982-1996, “examination of language minority students’ achievement over a 1-4 year period is too short-term and leads to an inaccurate perception of students’ actual long-term performance, especially when these short-term studies are conducted in the early years of school.” They focused on getting data from all grades, looking at the “academic achievement data in the last years of high school serving as the most important measures of academic success in our study.”

They found that “only quality, long-term, enrichment bilingual programs using current approaches to teaching, such as one-way and two-way developmental bilingual education, when implemented to their full potential, will give language minority students the grade-level cognitive and academic development needed to be academically successful in English, and to sustain their success as they reach their high school years.” This study backs up the findings of the Ramirez (1991) study. (“School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students” – Thomas and Collier, George Mason University – National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, The George Washington University Center for the Study of Language and Education, Washington, D.C.

In conclusion, I believe the data and theory strongly point to the use of two way or long term bilingual education programs over early exit and SEI programs. This data contradicts those that feel that students fall behind in long term bilingual programs. It is very unfortunate that the media and others have often consistently chose to ignore this data and instead have promoted the curtailing or the elimination of bilingual education. Hopefully in Massachusetts SEI will not be mandated by law as it has in other states. It will probably take a strong political and informational advocacy effort to save bilingual education in Massachusetts, but I believe this is possible.

A good source for information on bilingual education is Mass English Plus Coalition, E-mail:, Phone: (617) 457-8885, 126 High Street, Boston, MA 02110,

A group is for people trying to get the facts out about bilingual education in Massachusetts is , To subscribe :

Neil Brick has a Master’s in Elementary Education from Simmons College, Boston