TC Prof. Ofelia Garcia Speaks on Bilingual Education
The number of students for whom English is not a first language is growing rapidly in the United States, doubling in the last few years to approximately 10.5 percent of the total public school enrollment. About 75 percent are Spanish-speaking and most are urban and poor. These students are classified as “English language learners” by the US Department of Education, a term challenged by Ofelia Garcia, professor of bilingual education at Teachers College, Columbia University, at a recent Equity in Education Forum. Preferring the term, “emergent bilinguals,” she urges educators to “stop calling them ‘learners,’ a limited view, and maybe they will do better.” She decries the rapid decline in incorporation of home languages and cultures in instruction (the number of bilingual programs has dropped to just 17 percent and they are illegal in some states).
There are six basic models for teaching emergent bilinguals in today’s public education system. (1) Submersion, or “sink or swim,” provides no extra help, (2) Pull-out programs provide some support in special sessions, (3) Sheltered English offers much support but only uses English, (4) Transitional bilingual, or early exit, uses some native language but focuses on quick acquisition of English, (5) Late exit supports development of skills in English and the native language, and (6) Two-way bilingual, or duel language, helps native English speakers and their English-learner classmates become fluent in each other’s language.
Antecedents of policies for emergent bilinguals can be traced to the historic 1954 US Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated equal education for all by prohibiting segregated schools. Title VI of the groundbreaking 1964 Civil Rights Act protected the educational rights of language minority students, and the 1968 Elementary and Secondary School Act included the Bilingual Education Act authorizing funds for schools to assist limited English speakers in “programs designed to meet these special educational needs.” The Act was reauthorized in 1974 and 1978 and continued to encourage schools to design programs appropriate to their populations. By the 1980’s, the federal government began to favor funding English-only programs and added three-year time limits to transitional bilingual plans. Using a child’s native language in instruction came under political attack in the 1990’s; the highly publicized 1997 passage of California Proposition 227 that prohibited instruction in the home language is a prominent example. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 furthers the “English-only” philosophy and, with its high-stakes testing and pressures on students and schools, has been particularly hard on emergent bilinguals.
Professor Garcia sees a growing gap between research findings and policies. She notes that research shows development of a high cognitive level in a first language and provides a sound foundation for learning a second language. “Linguistic interdependence” aids learning as two languages bolster each other; children in bilingual programs have a better understanding of content. Evidence indicates that assessments that do not separate language skills from content are detrimental to emergent bilinguals and can result in inappropriate placements, low expectations, inferior education, and dropping out. Garcia urges education of the American public to appreciate the advantages of bilingualism in our increasingly globalized world. Educational policy should recognize the benefits of an equitable education for emergent bilinguals and build upon the strengths of native languages and cultures rather than suppress them.
In response to Garcia, James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, noted the changing framework of educational discourse. We are seeing a “backlash against immigrants” and “resentment toward funding benefits, including education.” We used to hear the term “equal educational opportunity.” No more. Today, a more popular phrase is “achievement gap” (four articles in The New York Times between 1981 to 1990 versus two hundred and seventy stories from 2001 to 2007). Donna Nevel of the Center for Immigrant Families stressed the importance of schools partnering with parents. Children do well in bilingual education when parents and cultures are respected, she said. “Successful programs involve more than teaching the language.” Garcia agreed, saying, “We can have wonderful programs done only in English as long as the native culture is respected.” All speakers called for more funding and resources, especially in high-poverty schools and increased research to determine the best ways to effectively deliver high-quality education to English-language learners.#