Sunday, June 23, 2024

Barack Obama Reignites the Debate Over Billingual Education

Barack Obama’s “Latino Blueprint for Change” promises to “close the achievement gap by investing in proven interventions.” Among these interventions is the inclusion of more skilled Bilingual teachers.

Despite his own family history,or perhaps inspired by it, Barack Obama is pitching a middle ground when it comes to bilingual education. He rejects the English only thrust of nativist conservatives, while distancing himself from advocates of cultural preservation.

Mr. Obama favors “transitional bilingual education,” meaning that he believes teachers should transition children to English as quickly as possible, building-up from students’ knowledge of their native language. That is, youngsters should become literate in two languages, not one.

Research inside schools lends support to his approach, assuming that a new generation of teachers can be prepared to serve the nation’s growing number of Asian and Hispanic children who enter school not speaking English. The nation’s economic future depends especially on the human capital of young Hispanics. By 2025, one in four students nationwide will be of Hispanic heritage.

The Bush administration has made little progress in closing huge gaps in achievement levels of Hispanic versus (non-Hispanic) white children. This means a less productive labor force in coming decades, the very workers that must help cover our Social Security checks and health care costs.

According to a poll conducted by The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and Ed in ’08, a nonpartisan campaign to raise awareness of education issues in the 2008, for Hispanic parents, the No. 1 issue in the presidential race is education. They will tilt swing states, like Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Virginia, toward the Democratic or Republican column. One-third of Hispanics registered as independents, often small business owners who depend on young literate employees, favor John McCain.

My Education Watch correspondent, Lance Izumi, prefers English immersion. But millions of young children enter school without grasping much English, and No Child Left Behind now humiliates them by setting on their desk a standardized exam that can’t be deciphered. These naïve policies only stigmatize what young children know, undercut their confidence in the classroom, and disempower parents.

Transitional classrooms, as Mr. Obama puts forward, offer a pragmatic alternative. A generation of research details that it’s the richness of teacher’s verbalizations that sparks the child’s growth in oral language, and then reading proficiency. An overnight shift to English can shake the child’s underlying confidence to communicate and stifle literacy growth in either language.

Even a Bush administration review of controlled classroom experiments — seeking to identify what works in language teaching — found stronger achievement gains for students enrolled in quality bilingual programs, compared with English-immersion classrooms. Yet a skilled bilingual teacher is crucial, one who understands the knowledge and social norms that children acquire at home, and how to build from the first language to advance rich oral language and then written literacy. It’s a no-brainer for students attending schools in Europe and East Asia.

Mr. Obama’s “Latino Blueprint for Change” promises to “close the achievement gap by investing in proven interventions.” Indeed the evidence points to other beneficial programs for Hispanic children, like expanding quality preschools and recruiting a new generation of bilingual teachers.

Mr. Obama’s promised “army of new teachers” could spur demand for Hispanic college graduates — if more than half actually graduated from dreary urban high schools. Many teenagers must exit to backstop their family’s economic survival.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain has little to say to Hispanic parents and all Americans who are eager to nurture a more productive workforce. He barely mentioned education reform in a recent speech before the League of United Latin American Citizens, saying only that “we need to shake-up failed school bureaucracies with competition.” The notion of individuals competing for scarce places in private schools remains foreign to most Hispanic communities, held together by pro-family values and economic cooperation.

Money matters will likely dominate the candidates’ remaining stump speeches during the final weeks of this marathon campaign. Barack Obama has much to gain by accenting his plan for lifting Hispanic achievement. Amplifying this message might spark robust voter turnout by a pivotal constituency. If elected, his press for a more integrated and literate workforce will benefit us all.

New York Times


  1. Many of us feel as if there is truly hope on the horizon for these children who enter our school systems speaking another language.

    Who wants them to feel so badly about learning English? We need to provide them with both their native language during their daily routine as English gets placed right alongside it for many reasons.

    I feel strongly about the really young child (preschool through early elementary school years) being able to be exposed to both native and new languages so that they maintain a high level of self esteem, increase their reading readiness skills and maintain their heritage / language.

    All very important to their future success. As for funding? The answer seems so crystal clear to me as an educator; though administrators do not seem to get it. (sigh) Perhaps someday they will see the light – no extra bilingual staff needed, just some motivational training for all classroom teachers (monolingual and bilingual) about how to weave both languages into their daily routine.

  2. As a product of bilingual education myself, I don’t understand how people criticize a program that 1) they have not been exposed to themselves 2) they don’t realize the tremendous benefits that educating a child in both languages brings along. We are not talking about “immersion” programs, where American students are immersed in the Spanish language only to realize that by the time they hit high school, they still can’t form the preterite. We are talking about a full blown out program where students are taught in their native language and at the same time they are introduced to their new language (English in this case) and the goal is that the child can master both languages equally in an academic setting. It is very sad when many immigrant children stop learning their mother tongue on purpose in order to feel “integrated”. Later on, they realize that how the system works has linguistically handicapped them.