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The Bilingual Education Debate: Part II


Thirty years after its introduction, bilingual education still generating controversy.

Last week, in The Bilingual Education Debate: Part I, we looked at the history of the bilingual education movement and several different approaches that teachers use to teach limited-English-speaking students. We hinted at some of the bilingual education issues that are the subject of today's heated debate...

In the heated controversy over bilingual education, the most determined opponents and proponents agree on one vital point: The ultimate goal of any approach is for students to become proficient in the English language.

A cornerstone of the case for bilingual education is the assertion, by well-known University of Southern California professor Stephen Krashen and others, that bilingual education is simply the most effective method for fostering the acquisition of English. The immersion approach, in which children who are not proficient in English are placed in the same classroom as native English-speaking children, is not effective by itself, Krashen and other linguistics researchers maintain. Based on their research, they assert that the quality -- not the quantity -- of English-language exposure is the primary factor in language acquisition. According to Krashen's research, the second-language input must be comprehensible in order for students to learn that language. And research by E. E. Garcia, for example, suggests that bilingual programs may serve as "a linguistic enrichment with possible cognitive advantages."

Children in "properly designed" bilingual education programs learn English quickly and meet grade-level standards in English and mathematics in three to five years, according to a 1987 study commissioned by the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE). The report says that data from 25 schools in seven California districts dispute the claim that bilingual programs slow the acquisition of English and keep children out of the mainstream longer.


Yet other organizations, such as the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), oppose key aspects of many bilingual education programs. Describing many bilingual programs, the CEO states that "students who don't speak English are locked away in special programs that try to maintain native languages rather than teach English, often without their parents consent."

A CEO report titled "The Importance of Learning English," which included a survey of 600 Hispanic parents of school-age children, showed that 63 percent of Hispanic parents prefer that their children be taught English as soon as possible and 81.3 percent want their children to be taught academic subjects in English. Based on these results, Linda Chavez, president of CEO, has said English-immersion programs will better serve students than current bilingual programs.

Opponents of bilingual education programs often harken back to the early 1900s, when children of immigrants entered schools in large numbers and being raised in a bilingual home was seen as harming school success. At that time, children were discouraged from speaking their native language at school. English immersion was the order of the day, and critics of bilingualism maintain, students who did not speak English readily learned it and entered the educational mainstream.

In "The Politics of Bilingual Education Revisited," an article excerpted from her book The Failure of Bilingual Education, Dr. Rosalie Pedalino Porter takes a position opposing bilingual education and supporting a type of English-language immersion.

"I see a definite trend across the country toward replacing the failed bilingual education programs with special English-language instruction, giving these students the means to gain entry into the school community quickly and effectively instead of segregating them for years in separate classes," says Dr. Porter.


While some communities have replaced bilingual programs with programs that lean more toward English immersion, bilingual education continues to have support from the community and school officials in school districts such as Houston and San Francisco, according to James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. But recent decisions in other districts in Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut show a tendency to allow schools to offer alternatives to bilingual education.

At the same time, California legislators in 1997 failed to pass a controversial bilingual education bill designed to make school districts more accountable for the performance of students with limited English proficiency. Some observers said that lack of action by the legislature is backfiring, fueling an ongoing petition drive for a state ballot measure to end bilingual education throughout California.

In a time of shrinking budgets and a scarcity of truly bilingual teachers, controversy over bilingual programs often focuses on how much the student learns in his native language and how long the student stays in a given program.


A recent plan to transform Denver's bilingual education program left school officials at odds with Hispanic community activists. School officials maintained the program was not reaching its goal -- to teach students English so they could succeed in mainstream classes. Officials said students who require bilingual education, including instruction in their native language, would still receive it under the proposed overhaul. However, introducing students to English faster and moving them into all-English classes after three years would be emphasized. About 20 percent of 64,000 students in the district have limited proficiency in English; most of those students are Spanish speaking.

Yet members of the Latino Education Coalition, an umbrella group of Denver-area Hispanic groups, said the problem in Denver was not with the program itself but with poor implementation and lack of support for the program. The proposed plan, coalition members said, would harm children by harming the bilingual program.

Last fall, the U.S. Education Department's office of civil rights further complicated the picture in Denver by declaring that the city's bilingual education program violated civil rights laws because its classes weren't as challenging as classes for general education students. The OCR dubbed the school district's plan to remedy the problem "insufficient" and threatened to hold back some or all of the city's $30 million a year in federal aid if the plan isn't changed to meet the regulators' requirements.


Research into bilingual programs presents its own problems. "Research on the effectiveness of bilingual education remains in dispute, because program evaluation studies -- featuring appropriate comparison groups and random assignment of subjects or controls for pre-existing differences -- are extremely difficult to design," states James Crawford, who has researched and written extensively about bilingual education. "Moreover, there is considerable variation among the pedagogies, schools, students, and communities being compared. While numerous studies have documented the benefits of bilingual programs, much of this research has faced methodological criticisms..."

Despite disagreements on the effectiveness of bilingual education, and conflicting interpretations of research on the subject, Crawford maintains that "a consensus of applied linguists recognizes that the following propositions have strong empirical support:

  • Native-language instruction does not retard the acquisition of English.
  • Well-developed skills in the native language are associated with high levels of academic achievement.
  • Bilingualism is a valuable skill, for individuals and for the country."


The debate goes on, with reason and emotion playing key roles. Some observers suggest that parents and educators don't yet have the information they need to make a good decision about bilingual programs. Debbie Reese in The Controversy Over Bilingual Education, suggests that "Further research will be necessary to determine which strategies are most effective in helping children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds succeed in school."

A 1997 press release from a committee of the National Research Council states that political debates over how children with limited English skills should be taught actually hamper research and evaluation of programs designed to meet the needs of these children. The committee said using research to determine whether English-only or bilingual instruction is better doesn't work. Instead of selecting one instructional method for all students with limited English skills, the committee recommended that research focus on identifying a variety of educational approaches that work for children in their communities, based on local needs and available resources.

"In recent years, studies quickly have become politicized by advocacy groups selectively promoting research findings to support their positions," said Kenji Hakuta, committee chair and professor of education at Stanford University. "Rather than choosing a one-size-fits-all program, the key issue should be identifying those components, backed by solid research findings, that will work in a specific community."

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 1998 Education World


  • Mirror of Lanauge: The Debate on Bilingualism by Kenji Hakuta (Basic Books, 1986). An examination of the many aspects of the debate on bilingualism.
  • Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education by Stephen D. Krashen (Language Education Associates, 1996). A noted proponent of bilingualism defends it.
  • Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of "English Only" by James Crawford (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1992).

Related Sites


  • Be sure to see The Bilingual Education Debate: Part I, for links to additional Internet sites related to the issue of bilingual education.
  • Bilingual Education Resources on the Internet An extensive listing of bilingual resources available on the Internet, including government servers, journals, digests, and research resources.
  • Bilingual Education James Crawford, a former Education Week editor, has a home page with information on such related topics as the Anti-Bilingual Initiative, Bilingual Ballots, Bilingual Education, Canards, English Only, and Research Controversy. Crawford is pro-bilingual education but gives the opposing viewpoint its due.
  • English Not Taught Here (Wall Street Journal, July 24, 1997) An editorial from the Wall Street Journal newspaper presents a cogent case against bilingual education.
  • Who is English First? English First is a national, non-profit lobbying organization with the goal of making English America's official language.
  • National Association for Bilingual Education The NABE states its goal is promoting educational excellence and equity through bilingual education.
  • Why Bilingual Education? An article by Stephen Krashen "explains the rationale underlying good bilingual education programs and summarizes research findings about their effectiveness."
  • English for the Children The home page of the organization that backs an initiative to end bilingual education in California.
  • California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) The site of CABE, which describes its mission as promoting and supporting "quality education for all."