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"Bilingual Education Didn't Work"


Roger Prosise, the superintendent of the Diamond Lake School District 76 in Mundelein, Ill., makes a compelling case for why Illinois shouldn't mandate bilingual education in schools. And he doesn't give the reasons that are usually given. He writes in a paper released by the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank that generally opposes bilingual education, that "bilingual education did not work in District 76."

Mr. Prosise says the method didn't work because of a shortage of bilingual classroom teachers, a lack of good bilingual reading teachers, and a lack of high-quality bilingual instructional curriculum materials.

For four years District 76 has used a "sheltered English" approach for ELLs, in which students take classes with modified English and receive some support in their native languages. The district also provides an optional dual-language program. In that program, students who are dominant in English and students who are dominant in Spanish learn both languages. But the offerings still didn't match what is required under Illinois law. When state officials found this out, they withdrew state and federal funding for the district's ELLs. Mr. Prosise said he fought back and had the $165,000 reinstated. His campaign to do so was covered by Illinois newspapers.

I'd like to see more educators who are currently working in schools speak publicly about this issue from their on-the-ground perspective. So much of the debate over methods seems to be dominated by education professors or other folks who aren't spending a lot of time in schools. Perhaps a method that is ideal in one school district, which has access to lots of well-educated bilingual teachers, is not so ideal in another setting.


Please note that what seems to be faulty here is not the bilingual program but rather the lack of resources put into it. Hence, the condemnation should not be of bilingual programs but rather of the poor implementation of the program.

Those of us who are college professors but have also spent a number of years in the classroom, readily recognize that both real-life and formal evaluations of educational approaches yield misleading results when they are not truly or effectively implemented.

Calling a program bilingual and then staffing it with teachers who are not fluent in academic oral language and academically literate in the language in which they teach, using substandard materials or less well-aligned materials for the testing that will follow, particularly if overseen by administrators who are not advocates of that approach will pretty much guarantee less than optimum results.

Suppose we impose the same conditions on monolingual mainstream education? Hire teachers who can muddle through in English for everyday purposes in oral language but were never schooled in that language and who have picked up some ability to read and write the language more or less accidentally but without competent models, feedback and correction of their by now "fossilized" errors. Give them materials created through translation that is too literal to be literate and that only align with the tested standards in the hype of the publisher. Set them to work in a school where their critical colleagues say "When are you going to stop speaking English and teach those kids something? (as if English were not a language through which content could actually be learned).
And by all means, give them an administrator who doesn't especially believe in the program, doesn't speak English and may not bother to order the needed teaching materials or allow them to be used as designed.

There is a reason why elite private schools (here and elsewhere in the world) who offer dual language instruction do it with teams of teachers, so that the one who is teaching in and through Spanish (or French or Japanese) grew up speaking that language as a child (whether as his/her onlly language or as one of two or more regularly used, high-status languages) in which he/she was schooled and likewise, the one who teaches English is also a native-speaker who was schooled in English, but one who has a fair knowledge of the other language being used and sympathetic cross-cultural experience living in more than one language. Finding the best materials is a priority for all the staff and administrators. Teacher input is highly valued, given primacy, and not coerced to rubber-stamp an autocratic administrative culture in these schools. Administrators are themselves highly competent bilinguals or multilinguals with extensive positive cross-cultural experiences. Show me that sort of bilingual instruction and tell me it has failed, and I will have to wonder what sort of community surrounded the program and whether the parents wanted their children to become bilingual, biliterate and bicultural or it was forced on them by an invading nation.

You cannot judge an implemented program by its title, only by the quality and consistency of its implementation. Similarly, you would not want to predict the failure of an otherwise valuable approach because you assumed it would be implemented incompetently.

It takes tremendous competence, talent, courage and a very thick skin to implement bilingual education adequately in this country---even when you have the necessary ingredients of competent staff utilized intelligently in teams, adequate materials aligned to designated outcomes, supported by administrators who have lived in a global world and believe others should have the option to do so as well, surrounded by a community that values both languages (and other languages) as totally capable of being used equally for equally valuable purposes.

Sadly, even in some cases when leadership has the bilingual or multilingual skills to understand what is needed and value that aspect of their own lives, they do not truly expect to share or support sharing those highly beneficial skills with less fortunate others.

A high quality education, in any language or languages only occurs when the leadership and the teachers follow what I was told was an old Chinese saying...
"The true measure of a great master is that he expects his pupil to exceed his grasp."
Or to put it another way, we do not teach well if all we seek is to send out students "molded to our own images" (or that of success on a test) instead of sending them forth as "arrows, lovingly crafted" with all the skill, knowledge and experience at our disposal, with the impulse of our encouragement, in the direction of their own dreams. (Give credit to Kalil Gibran for saying this is in more carefully edited words when talking about teaching and/or parenting, so look up those chapters in THE PROPHET and cite him accurately--my copy of his book is inaccessible at the moment.)

You really make a great argument here for how implementation makes all the difference. Thank you for this very substantive comment that certainly adds to the discussion. --Mary Ann

I'm honored you liked it. I really appreciate your blog as a way to keep up on what is going on nationally. [Additional comments followed and appear in an extended form below in response to Mary Ann Zehr's encouragement to share them.]

This is all very interesting stuff and as interesting for me to read as studies looking at the effect size of the benefits of bilingual education over English-only methods. Put it up on the blog when you see the opportunity!
--Mary Ann

What follows is a slightly edited and expanded version of my response to Mary Ann Zehr's email.

I remember the late 70s when a few school officials and a few of us profs who were also bilingual sat around a conference table and teachers who had volunteered to be designated as bilingual teachers came in for a five-minute interview to see if they could direct a child to the restroom or school office in Spanish. If they showed promise, they were (as I am wont to say) "stamped on the forehead", blessed, and (officially) "grandfathered" with a bilingual teaching credential some later wished they didn't have (because they didn't feel competent to teach through Spanish).
They were the few survivors who after being shamed, fined, spanked and sent home for speaking Spanish at school, learned enough through English to stay in school, graduate, go on to college and graduate, then receive teaching credentials based on coursework completed as part of their degrees.
Then we called them in and told them to TEACH in a language they had been taught never to use in public, especially not in school. After the schools effectively caused them to lose all of their mother tongue that wasn't used for "eating and loving" (at home and privately), we asked them to teach children to read, write and learn content through the language they had never been taught to read or write themselves. They were bilingual, bicultural teachers, but they were not, in many cases, biliterate teachers. Not to mention the fact that Spanish reading is more effectively and efficiently taught by focusing on vowels and syllables, while English calls for a different set of priorities. You only know that if you have a background in linguistics or have lived and worked as a primary grades teacher where each is the native language and is taught in the way that has worked well for generations of successful readers.
The most efficient way to correct for "language blindness" (trying to apply strategies only useful in learning to read in English to all other languages), is to import teachers to teach the language that is both their mother tongue and the language in which they were taught by well-schooled adult speakers of that language, and to pair them with ESL teachers who are English proficient and English-dominant bilinguals who have learned through English. The only problems that still occur are those of community and administrative support, adequate and appropriate materials, and the occasional clash between the "international standard" of the teachers and the language used in the particular community. Some professional development is required to ease the latter of these, the first two are a good bit harder to ameliorate if they are not at least on the verge of existing.

Now, back to the story of the "grandfathered" bilingual teachers who have staffed many of our bilingual program classrooms with tremendous effort and dedication to making things better for the next generation by lessening the traumas they themselves had suffered. After we supposedly implemented transitional bilingual education, the statisticians compared our "bilingual" classrooms with those of the mainstream and concluded there was "NO DIFFERENCE"---why would there be? When those teachers closed their doors (and teachers were allowed to do that back then), they taught as they had been taught, in the only language they had ever been allowed to use in school, using the materials and strategies their teachers had used. Of course, they could relate better to the parents of the children, when they weren't running down the hall to translate/interpret for all the monolingual teachers.

Most of our schools are doing a lot better now with regard to implementation and in some states teachers are tested for proficiency in both languages before they are certified, but the quality and quantity of materials in Spanish has diminished since the advent of NCLB, with its focus on English as the only measure of success and tests as the only standard that matters. Publishers just don't feel they can afford to make the extra effort to serve what the English-only states have caused to become a diminished market share. So...I still have young teachers who tell me that their principals have refused to order the mandated materials in Spanish for their classrooms and have told them not to "bother" with teaching their young pupils to read in Spanish, even though they were hired as certified bilingual teachers for positions that require bilingual certification (and carry an additional salary stipend for doing it) in schools that receive additional funding for meeting the needs of low-income bilingual pupils.
Some things are harder to change than others. As long as certain attitudes persist in the minds of those who control what teachers are allowed or encouraged to do, the children will suffer the consequences and the teachers will resign, become resigned to repeating what they know is wrong, or move on to a better place.


Bilingual education is limited to urban districts with high poverty rates and large numbers. It would be nice if the regulations were changed so that there could be itinerant bilingual teachers and more kids could get the services. I'm seeing the difference with a child I am teaching this year who is Thai. I speak Thai and can read and write it though not fluently and it helps a lot. My other students are upset that I don't know their languages. The stress level is lower when someone can speak your language and you can relate to them better.
A thing that is really dragging some of my students down in the stress of this test taking is the advanced kids now take a course of regular English with the other kids and the pressure is enormous. Too much. They are telling the beginning and intermediate students to stay that way! I think they are not being taken into consideration as much as they would have been in the past. One of my students came in with a long English language book because his ELA teacher told the class they had to choose an independent reading book at least 350 pages in length or else! I would prefer that they have smaller books they could cope with. What do the special ed kids do? It seems many are given books too difficult to read and have books on tape etc. but never time allowed to read books that would actually help them read better.

The technology and resources already exsit for ALL students to succeed.


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