Bilingual Education/Models of Bilingual Education

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Bilingual Education
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A General Look at the United States

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Signing ceremony at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio.

A great amount of the literature that is available in Colombia is based on the United States milieu. Although Colombian researchers have carried out successful and innovative investigations that in the long run will generate theory in the country, most of the theory that is reviewed in higher education institutions have emerged in a foreign context. The expert on second language learning, Cummins (2000), considers that “practice generates theory, which in turn, acts as a catalyst for new directions in practice,

which then inform theory, and so on “ (p.1). If that theory does not emerge from the various contexts that teachers engage in on a daily basis, Colombia will keep on digging up where the answer is not hidden. Sociopolitical issues cause researchers to construct theories that contribute to the improvement of educational practice. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the context in which those theories are generated in order to evaluate their application in Colombia.

On January 8, 2002, President George Bush signed the NCLB Act into law and initiated, as argued by Mallico & Langan as cited in Batt, 2005, “the most sweeping change in federal educational policy” (p.1). This Act focuses on stronger responsibility for state and local education organizations by holding them accountable for annual progress. This progress, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), is determined by raising the achievement levels of subgroups of students (major racial and ethnic groups, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, Limited English Proficient and special education students) to a state-determined level of proficiency. Under the NCLB Act every student must meet academic standards in reading and math and a way to determine the schools’ success is test scores. The test results will allow the state to label schools as “satisfactory” or “in need of improvement” but all children must be proficient by 2014 and no child will be left behind.

A group that finds difficulties to achieve 100% proficiency is the Limited English Proficient subgroup (LEP). LEP students deserve special attention because of their limited proficiency in English resulting in a disadvantage in comparison to students in other subgroups (Batt, 2005). Then, schools with large numbers of LEP students will experience difficulties achieving AYP. However, there are different programs that offer financial support to public schools with high numbers of poor children to help them meet high academic standards. Those schools are called Title I, and the funds are aimed at improving teaching and learning for students. A school with a large number of LEP students can be considered Title I, thus they are evaluated on the percentage of students that score at or above proficiency determined by the state. In addition, states are required to identify, in their student population other languages besides English in order to suitably assess each language from the linguistic aspect. Nonetheless, most schools overlook these requirements and administer the reading and mathematics assessments in the dominant language: English.

The sanctions schools receive when they do not make AYP vary depending on the number of years it has happened. Sanctions go from developing an improvement plan, offering students the option to transfer to another school, providing tutoring outside the regular school day, replacing some or all of the staff members, implementing a new curriculum, or reopening the school as a charter school ( a public funded school that has been exempted from state or local regulations). These characteristics exemplify the particular benefits of NCLB for the LEP subgroup which are bringing additional resources as well as attention to the schools that are serving them. The flaw that I can perceive is blame LEP students, as well as the other subgroups, will have to face if the school does not make AYP, generating prejudice and racism among the school community. In the long run, AYP for the LEP subgroup can become a mechanism of exclusion.

When working at a public school in the US, a defiant challenge from the NCLB Act towards both LEP students and the school itself can be perceived in the atmosphere. The challenges include the instability of the subgroup, the failure of standardized test scores to reflect what students understand, and the lack of proven accommodations that might make the scores more reliable (Batt, 2005). The LEP population does not stay in the same place over the time period allowed by the NCLB for all students and schools to become proficient. In addition, since the tests are made for native English speakers, LEP students are at a disadvantage due to the lack of cultural knowledge, which is assumed through out the tests. Schools are to offer specific and appropriate accommodations for LEP students, but they are limited to giving extended time to them. How can extended time help students understand the content on the standardized tests when they have weak reading skills? Some states such as Illinois, Virginia, and North Carolina have designed simple language versions of their mathematics and reading assessments aimed at helping schools make AYP, What about the other states? Most other states do not provide other types of assessment for LEP students because of the high cost; therefore, they simply administer the standard reading and math content tests failing to comply with AYP. Policy makers wish for LEP students to become proficient in English and master academic contents. Nevertheless, they are still looking for appropriate ways to incorporate LEP students in the process of accountability.

The ownership of two languages is not as simple as having two wheels or two eyes (Baker, 1996). Being bilingual entails not only the form of the language but also the skills, attitudes and usage given to the specific language. Then, who is bilingual? Bloomfield, cited in Bialystock (2001), insists that “a bilingual has full fluency in two languages” (p. 4). This general view takes into account neither the pragmatics of the language nor the individual differences of the learners. A bilingual individual is someone who can function in each language according to the given needs (Grosjean, cited in Bialystock, 2001). According to this view, a person that has a basic knowledge of the English language can be compared to a person that has good proficiency, because both of them can develop certain functions of the language. A number of definitions are given by several authors but there has not been a general agreement yet.

The Bilingual Education Act, which was replaced by the NCLB , tried to address the academic, linguistic, sociocultural, and emotional needs of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (Ovando, 2003). Under this Act, several bilingual schools were established to serve LEP students, addressing aspects that deal with the acquisition of a second language. After January 8, 2002, the word bilingual was wiped out from the first legislation and policy makers named the new one the 'English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act'. Its purpose is to ensure that LEP students achieve English proficiency, developing high levels of academic success in English.

Convincing politicians, school communities, parents, and policy makers of the benefits of, not only for LEP students, but also for language majority students, has been a knotty undertaking. School administrators and teachers have to persuade parents of the cognitive, social, and economical benefits that bilingualism would bring to their children in the long run. However, parents still show resistance towards the idea of having their children receive bilingual education.

Bilingual programs are created in public schools across the United States according to the school administrators’ beliefs, the available funds as well as the staff they depend on. The results of a specific bilingual program depend on resources, allocation class time given to the first and second language, parents’ cooperation, students’ socio-cultural background and the student-teacher environment lived in the school community.

Since Bilingual education is much more than a pedagogical tool, it has become a societal pain involving complex issues of cultural identity, social class status, and language politics (Ovando, 2002). The insignificant value that is given to Spanish in the United States is determined by the social interaction in the market. The increased number of bilingual programs across the US is due to the degree of awareness that Americans have reached towards this issue. The Hispanics population is the largest and fastest growing subgroup, and this means economical and political power.

From the economical point of view, a bilingual person that entered to the country legally can easily earn $40,000 a year. This is affecting the Caucasian unemployment rate. However, Hispanics that are not legally documented get paid the minimum wage. As a result the companies prefer to reduce costs by paying a low salary to illegal immigrants, which in turn causes discomfort among ethnic groups.

From a political stance, LEP students are being deprived from their linguistic rights. The so-called English-only movement is carrying not only a powerful linguistic deprivation but also a discrimination mass movement. Florida approved an anti-bilingual ordinance in 1980. This ordinance is exclusive because it does not advocate diversity and difference. Ambiguity and hidden messages are sent throughout the country with this type of legislation. Moreover, the US Federal Government states there is no official language, yet English is the official one in 26 states. The contrast of views among the states leads us to a hopeless landscape in which minority students are the ones that will suffer from a cognitive, social and cultural aspect.

What can be done to improve this controversial landscape in which children are in the crossfire? This question leads me to the third issue: how does the US prepare their bilingual teachers for the challenges of the twenty-first century classroom? NCLB Act calls for highly qualified teachers in every core academic classroom by the end of this school year (2005-2006) and to be considered highly qualified, teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, a full state certification and prove that they know each subject they teach. This claim becomes a challenge resulting in a language teacher’s shortage.

Some English language learners have teachers who understand their linguistic needs and provide rich, meaningful lessons that support their language growth (Short, 2005). The lessons that are planned by these types of teachers promote peer interaction that helps them comprehend the content that is covered in class. However, there are some less favorable learners that have teachers that leave them unsure of the tasks they are expected to do affecting their learning process.

Native teachers are expected to incorporate English culture in their teaching. Munter and Tinajero (2004) state that “the quality of the teacher is the single most outstanding factor leading to increase in pupil achievement” (p. 5). Teachers need to be well informed about issues that surround cultural awareness and prepared with the methods and pedagogic tools to achieve this so that no child will be left behind.

Mazur and Givens (2004) believe that “schools, community, and universities must function as a system rather than as separate entities and disconnected goals” (p. 11). US teachers need to take the theory to practice by visiting schools and getting familiar with the real situation that the different subgroups are experiencing. It is a matter of partnership to achieve the same goal: acquiring English and getting academic achievement through teacher training. The most recent proposal is to carry out this teaching practice in the context of professional development schools. These schools are an implemented partnership for the academic preparation of interns, as well as the continuous professional development of the school system and institution of higher education.

In this partnership, the knowledge cannot be placed exclusively on the university students or interns; the school and its staff can give useful information to make connections between theory and the daily classroom practice. These types of practices can meet the different needs of a diverse population of students and achieve students’ success.

Language teachers, researchers and any individual that are engaged in the educational field should be aware of the context in which the theory is generated. Being familiar with the socio-political issues that take place at the moment theory is brought about helps the government, schools and teachers have a clear goal regarding bilingual education. In the US, this type of education has come down a long and tortured path in which immigrants are hasty to assimilate the language and culture swiftly. The immigration movement is striking different national aspects, such as the acceptance of diverse classrooms, which make policymakers come up with new legislation that is in compliance with their culture, and political framework. Any individual that carries out research on the educational field should evaluate these diverse issues to foresee the application of theory in a different context, in this case, Colombia.

Colombia is passing through a transitional process in which English is of vital importance to the government. Therefore, the ministry of education, as a means to develop the skills of its citizens at this time of globalization, has created the Colombia Bilingue project. Its educational purpose, as opposed to the English-only movement in the United States, is seeing the process of language learning as a process of cultural learning. Yet, the project continues searching for solutions that come from abroad overlooking the potential Colombian teachers possess to generate educational theory that can help the students face this new challenge for Colombia. In the end, answers will be found in the classroom where teachers’ research initiatives generate theory framed by our own socio-economic, political, educational and societal issues.

But if you ask what is the good of education in general, the answer is easy: that education makes good men, and that good men act nobly.

—Plato, Greek philosopher (c. 428–c. 348)


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Baker, C. (1996). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Batt, L., Kim, J. (February, 2005). Limited English Proficient Students. Harvard University.

Bialystock, E. (2001). Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Mazur, A., & Givens, S. (2004). Professional Development Schools. NABE News. (28) 1

Short, D. (2004). Teacher skills to support English language learners. Educational Research. 62(4) December-January. pp 9-13.

Ovando, C. (2003). Bilingual Education in the United States. Bilingual Research Journal. (27) 1