Sunday, May 8, 2011

War of Words: The Bilingual Education Debate

Erin Newman

The debate about the pros and cons of bilingual education is one that has persisted for decades. Although it should be simply a question of language acquisition and maintenance, it has inevitably been complicated by issues concerning race, socioeconomic status and immigration, which have led to imlications of xenophobia. On June 2, 1998, Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education and replaced it with structured English Immersion (SEI) programs, passed in California. This bill was promoted and sponsored by Ron Untz who was the runner-up in the 1994 Republican primary for governor. In a debate on Fox News on the Arizona initiative to dismantle bilingual education Brent Wilkes from United Latin American Citizens debates Untz regarding Prop. 227 and media claims about its success.

The debate is preceded with background about the failure of bilingual education in Arizona. The footage shows how Hispanic families wanted to ban bilingual education because the system in Arizona consisted of Spanish-only classes that didn’t allow the children to gain enough exposure to English and consequently caused their English to suffer.  The Fox News representative addresses the elimination of the bilingual education program being confused with the attempt to eliminate Hispanic cultures. One parent opposed to the program responded to this by communicating that she and others in opposition just want the children to be effectively taught English and there is no reason they desired to subvert the culture. The footage also shows how the bilingual education system in Arizona resulted with a mere 2.8 percent success rate. One man in favor of the bilingual education system bases his claims on longitudinal studies. In his interview he expresses that when the programs are “properly implemented, bilingual education works.”  This argument is countered by community members who refer to the low test scores of Spanish-speaking students who were enrolled in the bilingual education programs.

The LSA has provided studies that show that instruction in one’s home language is the most effective way of conducting bilingual education. Though this is the method that was employed in Arizona school system, the success rates were incredibly low. This leads one to question what the possible reasons for this could be? The test score statistics assessing the students’ success in English either contradicts the LSA’s research conclusions, or is evidence that the bilingual education program that was previously in place was not properly implemented; that there were factors missing or misused in the teaching method.

As the debate begins, Brent Wilkes from United Latin American Citizens argues that the decision as to how the students would like to be instructed in English should be left to the parents, teachers and educators. Ron Untz retorts by arguing that students in Arizona have been much more successful under the system implemented by proposition 227. To support his argument he presents newspaper articles with headlines that support his claim.  Wilkes then introduces the importance of taking into consideration  “other factors that impede their educational process” when considering inner-city students who are on the lower end of the economic scale. This aspect of the argument is not addressed in depth, which presents a hole in Untz’s argument because, seeing as how the issue has become so politically charged, it no longer only presents statistics that are a result of the educational/linguistic acquisitional process, but is complicated by a variety of social and political factors.

Wilkes concludes his argument by expressing that he would support a proposition that would allow the decision to opt out of bilingual education to be optional, rather than excluding it altogether. He further opposes Untz’s proposition by saying that without presenting this option it will “force people into a specific methodology which is unproven and against the wishes of the parents that are currently in this program.”   Although Untz responds that it is indeed optional, Wilkes points out that the waiver required to opt out of it is very difficult to attain.

An article from by Lance T. Izumi, J.D. entitled “10 Years After Prop. 227: Bilingual Education Still Hanging On: Capital Ideas” reflects on the success that the proposition has had a decade later ( /10-years-after-prop-227-bilingual-education-still-hanging-on). Izumi reports: “California lacks a sophisticated student-achievement database, so it isn’t possible to say, on a statewide basis, whether bilingual education or SEI has been a more effective method for transitioning EL students to English fluency. Studies of school districts, however, have shown that Prop. 227’s reforms seem to be working.” Considering the fact that claims about the success under Prop. 27 are not based on solid statistical evidence and fail to consider the effects on maintenance of the home or heritage language, it is important that there remains the choice not to enlist in this “specific methodology.”

The Prop. 227 debates present many points about the success of immersion programs in achieving success in the target language. It is hard to accredit the structured English Immersion programs, however, when there is inconclusive evidence, and the research does not draw upon the importance of maintaining a home or heritage language. Analyses of student success under Prop. 227 do not consider research regarding immersion programs potentially leading to a subtractive bilingual experience where the second language is acquired at the expense of the first language. This aspect, in addition to the argument that it is important to consider other factors that play into educational success are crucial components that should be considered when assessing the outcome of immersion and/or bilingual programs. Immersion programs may be successful for short-term, conversational English, but as Wilkes argues, long-term bilingual educational programs move at a rate that is more true to the natural acquisition rate of a language. Although there are various claims that Proposition 227 seems to be effective in increasing success rates of learning English, there is still a large factor of the debate around bilingual education that must be taken into consideration. Bilingual education is not only geared towards providing instruction for a productive English-learning experience, but for maintaining the home or heritage language of the students, which is a main constituent of preserving their culture.


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  2. If your first attempt being bilingual wasn't effective, give a try again and again! All the various strategies frequently used by modern parents raising bilingual children do work. What are the benefits? Review the article about bilingualism pros and cons to find the answer!