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A Shiny New Package:
What Are Bilingual Educators
Fighting For Anyway?

by Stephen J. Pollard
Irving, Texas

Commonly, the average American misunderstands the purpose and method of bilingual education. In general, Americans are not aware that bilingual educators are fighting for the rights of language minority students; and specifically and most importantly, the right to a quality education, including full and fluent development of the English language. Lamentably, bilingual educators have had to be on the defensive since the modern renaissance of bilingual education in the 1960's. Many languages were taught bilingually in the American schools in the 18th and 19th century. The bilingual programs first appeared in parochial schools and then later appeared in public schools. For example, German was taught bilingually in Texas and Pennsylvania.

In the August 1998 issue of Vista magazine, Max Castro cites a poll that reveals that homosexuality is the only issue that received less support among Americans than bilingual education. What does this indicate? Are Americans so socially insecure that they consider bilingual educators and foreign languages to be some sort of malevolent presence in the United States? Given my knowledge of Americans and love for our culture, I do not think so. It is hard for me to believe that Americans want these kids to perform badly in school. Perhaps then, the reason behind these negative polls is a lack of knowledge by the general public about bilingual education and the process of how kids best acquire a second language. Mis-perceptions about bilingual education are further perpetuated by the "English Only" message and its well-funded propaganda machines.

The English Only camp has it so easy. Their battle cry, "Teach them in English!" is easily stated and easily (mis)understood, though not easily implemented. These programs tout success, but in reality they are horrible failures as they do not foster academic success in English. The Orange County School District in California is well known for its English immersion program and indeed the school district is quick to promote its success. In reality, the program is a failure. The program only met one of its three self-imposed goals. It did increase the oral fluency rates for the children by one year, but bilingual programs can do the same. The English immersion program failed to increase its redesignation rates to fluent English speaker. Nor did the program meet its goal of increasing its standardized test scores. Why is this so? English immersion programs can not teach academics as well as bilingual education. It is as simple as that. To teach academics, the teacher needs to use comprehensible input. Bilingual education is the only program that can do this.

Bilingual educators have to explain a myriad of complex issues. Some of these include: the value of academic instruction in the student's native language; the challenges of assessing children who can't be validly tested in English and when valid tests in native languages are difficult to come by; the long time it takes for a student to transition to full academic instruction in English and still be able to achieve in the classroom; and conversational vs. academic fluency in English and the longer time it takes to achieve the latter.

Yet no matter how many times we explain these challenges, we still are faced with the same questions: "How will you do it?," "How much will it cost?," and "How long will it take?;" but not: "What's best for the students?" Unfortunately, bilingual educators have a difficult time answering simple questions with complex answers. The questioners' eyes glaze over and their focus wanes. And bilingual educators are still left with the need to synthesize our message into a concise message that is just as easily understood as the "English Only" message. Research has proven bilingual education to be superior to English immersion in promoting student achievement, but how can we, as bilingual educators, get this message across in a credible way?

Here is one observation. I once saw a job announcement regarding openings for biliteracy teachers. I think this term provides a better description of what bilingual educators do. The term bilingual may lead the public to believe that we are language teachers just like French or Spanish teachers at the secondary school level who teach a period-long class in the target language with very low-level vocabulary. This is not the case. Instead, we teach academic subjects such as math, science and social studies in TWO languages, and parents who put their children in bilingual programs need to understand that we are promoting the development and importance of knowing ALL subject matter in TWO languages. If the term "bilingual education" has been tarnished, even unfairly, then perhaps one new strategy we should use is to call ourselves biliteracy teachers. Some districts' teachers already do so such as the Palmdale School District in Florida. Perhaps this denomination would better connote what we do: that is, we use the best, researched-based teaching methodology currently available to ensure the academic success of our students.

I realize that this is simplistic, but isn't that how the "English Only" crowd have gotten their irrational thinking across successfully?

When I describe my profession using the term "biliteracy teacher" to describe what I do, I am faced with far less cynicism and doubt. Sometimes, a good product needs to be repackaged, as evidenced frequently in the marketplace. When was the last time a proven product was given new packaging to increase sales. I think bilingual, oops, biliteracy education needs new wrappings. Perhaps if we are able to communicate our message in a new, concise manner, we can get back to the business of preparing biliterate students who are ready to compete in the global community of the new millennium

Stephen J. Pollard: My name is Stephen J. Pollard and I have been in education six years, three of which as a Spanish teacher and three as a bilingual teacher. I presently work in the Irving Independent School District in Irving, Texas at J.O. Schulze Elementary. I teach a self-contained third grade bilingual class. I have a BA in business and a MA in Spanish Literature both from the University of North Texas. I am currently the bilingual lead teacher at my school for the intermediate grades, 3-5.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 11, 1998