Why Politicians Debate Bilingual Education


English 101

23 Oct. 2002

The definition of bilingual education is: instruction for those who do not speak English, by teachers who use the students’ native language at least part of the day. The term usually has meant teaching students to be fluent in two languages (Worsnap 3). The other option for teaching limited English proficient (LEP) students is an English-based program such as ESL (English as a second language). It is believed that this approach helps students to learn English as quickly as possible so that academic achievement will come more readily (Worsnap 3).

Bilingual education has been a topic for debate for many years on the political scene. The main arguments started in the 1960’s when the United States started permitting more Hispanics, Asians, and Africans into the country. In 1968, Congress passed, and Lyndon B. Johnson signed, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which encouraged local schools to establish bilingual programs. In 1974, Title VII was revised to add federal funding for teacher training, development of programs, and materials.

Bilingual education remains controversial in education and political circles 25 years after Congress first endorsed it. Supporters still argue that teaching so-called limited English proficient (LEP) children in their native tongue helps them keep up with their studies while they acquire a firm grasp of English. And opponents continue to insist that bilingual education retards the movement of LEP children into the education mainstream, as well as into American culture in general (Worsnap 2).


One primary goal that both Right and Left political sides seem to agree on is that LEP students need to learn English. The real debate seems to be how to achieve that goal and how much of their native language they should retain in the process. The increasing debate in the government to continue federal, state and local funding for bilingual education seems to stem from which type of bilingual approach is most successful, immersion, transitional, or two-way.

In the political debate over bilingual education, one approach that the government can choose to fund is called immersion education. The word ‘immersion’ in itself has different connotations within the realm of bilingual education. Most people and politicians acquaint it to the “sink or swim” method, which is the way most immigrants learned English before the 1960’s. But actually, a gradual approach, such as ESL, is more common these days, which enables LEP students to receive extra instruction in English each day in addition to their regular classes (Worsnap 3). In structured immersion classes, students learn English from instructors who teach them subject matter in English. Lessons are based on clues instructors give to coax students through their lessons and ideally, the students absorb or learn grammar as well as vocabulary in the process (Donegan 29-30). The studies of the immersion technique vary widely. Virginia Collier of George Mason University in Fairfax, VA said in her study on bilingual education that “[ . . . ] because non-English-speaking students taught mainly in English fall behind in content learning, [they are left] to play catch-up in the later grades” (Donegan 5). Opponents counter that LEP students in bilingual education programs are often segregated during the school day, which slows assimilation and puts up barriers between different language groups (Donegan 5). Immersion classes, however, only separate for brief periods. In the immersion technique, LEP students should be able to learn enough English in three to four years

to move into mainstream classes, where as bilingual education students usually take six to seven years.


Another approach that politicians debate is Transitional bilingual education (TBE). Such programs teach students non-language subjects like science and math in their native language for a limited period while the student learns English, and reading is taught in both languages. Once students reach the desired skill level in English, they attend mainstream classes (Worsnap 4). An offshoot of TBE is developmental bilingual education (DBE), which is essentially the same as TBE, but in addition, it is designed to increase the student’s native-language. Proponents of DBE consider it “additive” rather than “subtractive” as in the TBE approach. Rep. Toby Roth, R-Wis., recently asserted, “Transitional bilingual education is a dismal failure at what Congress has specifically asked it to accomplish: teach students English” (Worsnap