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What Do Immigrants Want from Schools? Then and Now

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Americans who perceive that immigrants who come to the United States these days are resistant to learning English and making new demands of schools to cultivate their native languages are wrong, argues a sociologist in the May 2009 issue of American Journal of Education. His article about immigrant trends is called: "What Have Immigrants Wanted from American Schools? What Do They Want Now? Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Immigrants, Language, and American Schooling." (Only an abstract is available free online.)

Michael R. Olneck, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contends that Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans who support bilingual education in schools are part of a continuum of immigrant groups who have made the transition to learning English while also retaining their ethnic identity. Latino immigrants, he writes, "appear akin to late 19th-century Germans in welcoming the public schools' assistance in language maintenance." He adds that Latinos today don't expect full developmental bilingual education. Rather, a limited program for Spanish speakers in the elementary grades, such as what Cubans have in Miami, is satisfactory to them.

He notes, however, that Asians tend to oppose bilingual education.

Olneck goes on to say that support for bilingual education among Latinos has declined. He cites a 1989-90 National Latino Political Survey that found about 80 percent of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban respondents said they "strongly support" or "support" bilingual education. But a 1999 poll by another polling group found that 59 percent of Latino respondents believed that students should be able to take some courses in their native language in public schools.

Olneck says that immigrant groups historically and now have sought to use American schools to help them integrate into American society. Contrary to what some scholars argue or what some Americans may believe, immigrants are not seeking support from schools for "cultural and linguistic separatism," he said.

2 Comments

I do not believe the obligation of American schools is to provide education in a variety of languages. I am in a family of immigrated germans and hungarians all of whom believe assimilation begins with speaking English. That is the language of our country official or not. Speaking a different primary language will continue to split this country and keep new immigrants from assimilating. If they are not interested in speaking the language and living as Americans do, they need to rethink coming here. I do not believe we should provide services to any illegals. They are sucking up valuable resources American tax payers pay for. They complicate the school system. My friend is a Sp&L teacher. She gets presented with 3 yo spanish speaking kids and is told to assess them for language difficulties. WHAT? She does not speak spanish. There begins the problem.

Bilingual education is good for teaching students English and making sure they have a good education. Ignoring the primary language causes problems and subverts the goal of learning English and getting a good education. I wish the rules for bilingual education hadn't stayed as firm as they have. It is still required only after there are 20 students in one grade level. This creates an almost impossible burden for most students. The bilingual programs are often centered and based in the most impoverished areas which causes another problem for reputation and success. I would love to see intinerant bilingual teachers who serviced several districts so that students could have access to education in their native language at least some part of their school day or week. Binlingual in the US has almost exclusively meant Spanish language which also colors peoples' support for bilingual teaching rightly or wrongly. I have seen in a bilingual program in one urban district near me that it does lead to isolation and eventually fear of being out of the program or cooperating with other groups in the school. That needs to be addressed and just mixing in Gym, art and the lunchroom of little help. The people who made that up don't teach in schools.

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