Executive Perspective

The Unfortunate Devolution of Bilingual Instruction


One of my responsibilities in my first administrative job was to develop and direct a bilingual education program for the Nassau County Board of Cooperative Educational Services in New York. In 1972, I submitted an application for federal funding under what then was known as the Bilingual Education Act, or Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The BOCES system is an educational service agency providing for the needs of the component districts in its region, and the Nassau BOCES, the largest in the state, serves 56 school districts on Long Island.

Daniel DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

To my delight, the proposal was funded, and we organized the programs. We selected communities in Nassau County, a suburb of New York City with a high concentration of non-English-speaking students. We offered instruction in three languages -- Spanish, Italian and Portuguese -- and Hempstead, Long Beach, Westbury, Mineola and Glen Cove were among the first communities served.

Our model created multiaged classrooms in the highest impacted schools and provided a trained bilingual teacher and aide. In those days, not many schools of education provided bilingual education training, so one of our first activities was to recruit teachers who were bilingual in a target language and train them to be effective bilingual educators. One of my first trainers was Betty Molina Morgan, who recently finished her term as National Superintendent of the Year.

Because of the Aspira Consent Decree, a court ruling mandating bilingual education, the city of New York took the lead in developing bilingual programs in the state. Although the consent decree did not require the rest of the state to provide bilingual programs, the Title VII funds made it possible for many suburban areas to create new ways to serve the needs of their growing populations of English language learners.

Hernan LaFontaine was the director of bilingual programs in New York City at the time. He later went on to become superintendent in Hartford, Conn., and most recently worked with the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. LaFontaine helped the rest of us in the state as we implemented our own programs. Our collaboration would lead eventually to the founding of the New York State Association for Bilingual Education. I am proud to have been its first president.

A Devaluation Period
Since those days, bilingual education seems to have devolved rather than evolved. There is no longer a Title VII to fund bilingual programs. There isn't even a bilingual office in the U.S. Department of Education. States like California and Massachusetts, in essence, have banned bilingual instruction.

A huge demographic shift has taken hold since the 1970s. Back then, only 6 percent of the school-age population was Hispanic. Today, at 19 percent, they are the largest minority group in our schools. If the devaluation of bilingual education was supposed to result in significant academic gains, then the strategy has failed miserably.

At a time when there is a significant emphasis on closing the achievement gap, reducing the dropout rate and increasing the percentage of students graduating from high school, Hispanics are at the short end of the stick in every category. Out of 100 Hispanic 9th graders, only 53 will graduate from high school. Twenty-seven will go on to college, but only 10 of them will graduate.

Along with African-American students, 33 percent of Hispanic students, many of them English language learners, make up the majority of the student population at so-called dropout factories. In discussions focusing on turning around those schools, bilingual education should be included as a strategy that can make a difference for those students.

I find it difficult to understand why anyone would oppose teaching students in the language they best understand. I accept that it might be impossible to do so in areas where bilingual teachers are not available. I would be the last person to debate the critical importance of being functionally literate in the English language.

I came to the United States as a 9-year-old immigrant from my native Cuba. Total immersion worked for me. I was placed in a boarding school in Tarrytown, N.Y., where no one spoke Spanish. It was sink or swim, and I swam. Within three months, I could speak and understand enough English to get by. But I came to this country as a literate 5th grader with a solid foundation on which to build.

Politics and Prejudice
However, that is not the case today for the majority of our immigrant students, who come to us often illiterate in their native language and without a solid foundation to build on. More than 40 years of research in second-language acquisition in this country affirm the effectiveness of using the native language to learn higher-level concepts while learning the English language. And maintaining a child's native language would be so much more effective than trying to teach them a "foreign" language at the secondary level.

My experiences tell me the issue has less to do with research and pedagogy and perhaps more to do with prejudice and politics. If we are to be competitive in this global economy, if we are to lead the world in the percentage of our population with college degrees, then we cannot afford to do anything less in the classroom than what research and pedagogy indicate is appropriate.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org