The purpose of this post is to discuss the historical, political, social, and economic dynamics of educating limited-English proficient students, otherwise referred to as English learners, in American public education systems. The issues surrounding the education of this sector in America’s student population has been charged nearly as early on as the founding of the nation (Brown, 1992). The concerns have primarily been entrenched in the struggle to identify an official language for the country. The main question is: should American schools provide bilingual education?
Although many schools across the nation taught in English, bilingual education was prevalent as late as 1900. As national homogeneity began to take shape in context of world politics, most schools shifted from teaching children in their primary language as well as in English to English-only schooling (Brown, 1992). From a social standpoint, clearly, African Americans and American Indians were the most voiceless. For example, legislation in the late 19th century established Indian Boarding Schools and mandated American Indian students’ attendance in effect requiring them to lose their heritage language (Brown). Other ethnic groups were fiercely engaged in argumentation regarding not only racial divides but linguistic superiority (Brisk, 1982).
Under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, the nation suffered, and, to some extent, still suffers, isolationism and xenophobia during the period directly after World War I. The establishment of an American race was slowly gaining ground and it has been substantially documented that President Roosevelt was a staunch advocate of this movement—thus, his opposition to bilingual education (Dyer, 1992). The biases against bilingual education were certainly reinforced by the bully pulpit of President Roosevelt.
However, a more recent iteration of political influence was wielded by President Regan as he publicly pronounced certain languages as uncivilized and heathen (Fishman, Gertner, Milan, & Milan, 1985). What is of more profound impact is that, socially, the language that a people speak is inextricably connected to their race and ethnicity and, so, the statements of our Presidents are, in effect racist statements (Fishman et al.)
However, “…diversity gained ground after the overseas experiences of World War II, with the government increasing foreign language instruction in the armed forces and public schools and giving support for desegregation” (Brown, p. 1). The momentum created during the post World War II era caused bilingual education programs to develop—especially during the 1960s.
Although the pangs of the struggle for a nation identity still stung, in 1974, the seminal Lau vs. Nichols case established the harkening of a new era in educating English learners. The civil rights case was brought by Chinese American students living who had limited-English proficiency asserting that they were not getting help in school that they were due under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of their incapacity to speak English. This case was, and is, one of the most influential legal cases in American education history as it holds that “…a student’s language [is so] closely intertwined with one's national origin that language-based discrimination is effectively a proxy for national origin discrimination.” (Lau v. Nichols, 1974). As a result, four percent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds were diverted to alternative education programs and, by 1988 that figure rose to 25% (Brown).
Other influences, such as the national economy, also impacted the question of bilingual education . As the role of the federal government decreased in education and curriculum development policies in the 1980s due to a reduction of funding, a “backlash against the perceived excessive gains of minorities at the expense of the white majority became strident and vocal opposition to non-English language instruction [reawakened]” (Brown, 1992, p. 10).
The issue of bilingual education continues today as conservative intellectuals, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Rosalie Porter, and Allan Bloom, continue to rail against bilingual education in the name of unifying an American culture while advocates such as Laurie Olsen, Stephen Krashen, and Robin Scarcella on the liberal side of the equation promote the need for bilingual education citing academic research and national studies as their evidence. What the literature regarding the issues surrounding the education of English learners has shown is that “…the impact that any ethic group [has] on government regulation [of curricular policies]… [is] a function of the political clout of that particular group.” (Brown, 1992, p. 5).
Brisk, M. E. (1982). Language policies in American education: A historical overview. In Bilingual education teacher handbook (pp. 1-24). Cambridge, MA: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center for Bilingual Education.
Brown, B. (1992). The history of bilingual education in America (Report No. 020 745). Chico, CA: California State University, Chico. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED350874)
Dyer, T. G. (1992). Theodore Roosevelt and the idea of race. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Fishman, J. A., Gertner, M. H., Milan, L., & Milan, W. G. (1985). The rise and fall of the ethnic revival: Perspectives on language and ethnicity. New York: Mouton.
Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S.D.C. 563 (1974).