Focusing on Education Beyond English
In recent years, much attention has been drawn to the bilingual education debate. Immigration is booming, and along with it the number of non-English-speaking children entering public schools. According to Thomas and Collier, "Language-minority students are predicted to account for about 40 percent of the school-age population by the 2030’s" (5). Bilingual programs in many areas have sparked a heated controversy, with many people claiming that non-English-speaking children, most notably Hispanics, are being disadvantaged by programs that simply don’t work.
Many people assume that a lack of English comprehension poses obstacles to normal scholastic progress. Others argue that children are being hindered more by attempts to help them learn English, than by their lack of English ability. The worst arguments against bilingual education may be ethnocentric, or even racist, in nature, but many other arguments have a practical and common-sense sound to them and are not easy to dismiss.
For those who have children’s best interests at heart, the opponents can be divided roughly into two camps: a) those who favor English-only instruction so that children are not hindered in their opportunities later in life, and b) those who favor a program that maintains the cultural heritage and language of the non-English community.
Those debating both the problems and merits of bilingual education programs often seem to forget that the primary concern of all schools should be to make sure that students are succeeding in their coursework. Schools are responsible for much more than teaching English and preserving cultural heritage (many question whether schools should have either responsibility). The question is how to teach the standard curriculum satisfactorily to non-English-speaking children entering schools today, so that they do not fall behind their English-speaking peers. More research needs to be done with this goal in mind, for at present, there does not seem to be enough data to conclude that any of the current education models are the best.
Today, there are many models of bilingual education. The most popular and best known are the transitional and ESL models, what Thomas and Collier refer to as "remedial" programs (2). Transitional refers to programs where educating begins in the native language, but the primary focus is to move children into classes where all educating is done in English. In transitional programs, children are taught in their native language by bilingual teachers, and given special training in English. After about 3 years, all instruction is done in English. In the ESL program children are removed from ordinary classes in order to receive special instruction in English. Children with many different backgrounds are put together in one classroom with teachers who are trained to teach English as a foreign language. The teachers are not usually bilingual. Like the...