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Bilingualism is often wrongly blamed for the poor academic performance of language minority children. Groups opposing bilingual education in the U.S. such as “English for the Children” claim that bilingual instruction leads to educational failure of immigrant children. They argue that millions of mostly Hispanic immigrant students are hurt by being taught in Spanish, which prevents them from learning the English they need to succeed in school. They have used this argument to help pass legislation in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts to end bilingual education as an instructional option for immigrant children (Chapter 7 describes these anti-bilingual education laws). However, while it is true that Hispanic students have the highest high school dropout rate among the race/ethnicity categories in the U.S. (see Table 1.1), this is not because they have received bilingual instruction. In fact, many of these students have never had bilingual education.

In her book, Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools, Guadalupe Valdes (2001) points out that bilingual education is an option actually open to only a small fraction of immigrant children, primarily in the first three years of elementary school (see Table 1.2—(4) transitional bilingual education). She notes that in California, for example, even before the passage of Proposition 227 (which abolished bilingual education in that state), only 409,874 students (29%) out of a total of1,406,166 English Learners (ELs) were enrolled in bilingual education programs. Once Proposition 227 passed, only 8% of the state’s EL students were enrolled in bilingual education

Percentage of 16- through 24-Year-Olds Who Are Not Enrolled in School and Have Not Earned a High School Credential, by Race/Ethnicity

































Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011

programs (through waivers signed by parents). Given that the vast majority of the ELs in California are Spanish-speaking—85% of the total EL population, according to a Migration Policy Institute report (Batalova & McHugh, 2010)— what this means is that the majority of the Spanish-speaking ELs in California have not received bilingual instruction. Therefore, the poor academic performance of Hispanic students could not be due to bilingual education. What’s more, since the passage of anti-bilingual education legislation in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, the achievement gap between language minority and mainstream children in those states has actually widened (Gandara & Hopkins, 2010a).

The issues related to the academic performance of language minority students are far more complex than just what language is used for instruction. To understand the factors that contribute to the poor educational performance of Hispanic and other language minority students, one needs to first examine the instructional options that are available for students who come to school speaking languages other than English. Table 1.2 shows six different program models for educating ELs in the U.S. Among the six options, the monolingual education program models (i.e., (1) submersion, (2) submersion with ESL pull-out, and (3) structured immersion) are much more common than the bilingual education program models (i.e., (4) transitional bilingual education, (5) developmental bilingual education, and (6) two-way immersion). States reporting the types of language instruction programs funded under Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act overwhelmingly favor English-only instructional programs over bilingual education programs (Viadero, 2009).

Bilingual education programs tend to be found in states with large numbers of students from the same first language background. Since Spanish speakers constitute 73% of all ELs in the U.S. (Batalova & McHugh, 2010) and they tend to be concentrated in certain areas of the U.S., most of the bilingual education programs offered in the U.S. are in Spanish and English. Of the bilingual education program options, transitional, or early-exit, bilingual education

programs are the most common. The goal of these programs is to provide just enough instruction in Spanish so that students can catch up to their native-English-speaking peers. Once they are deemed proficient in English (within one to three years in the program), Spanish is dropped from the curriculum and students are mainstreamed to English-only instruction. Compared to transitional bilingual education, developmental, or late-exit, bilingual education programs are less common in the U.S. These programs have the goal of promoting both the students’ home language and English throughout most of elementary school. However, these programs are also phased out by middle school when students are mainstreamed into English- only instruction.

Of the three bilingual education models in Table 1.2, two-way (dual) immersion programs are perhaps the most promising in terms of developing bilingualism in language minority children. These programs recruit about half of the students from native-English-speaking homes and the other half from language minority homes. Instead of isolating language minority children in separate classrooms as do the bilingual education programs, two-way immersion programs teach literacy and subjects in English and the other language to both English speakers and ELs in the same classroom. Although two-way immersion programs offer many benefits to both the majority and minority language speaking groups (see also Chapters 4 and 8), they exist mostly in elementary schools. At the middle and high school levels, instruction in a student’s primary language is rare.

The vast majority of the language minority students in the U.S. are placed in one of the monolingual education programs and are expected to be quickly mainstreamed into English-only instruction. In the submersion model, ELs are placed in mainstream instruction along with their English-speaking peers with no special help. Also known as sink-or-swim, this is how language minority children used to be taught in the U.S. before ESL programs were created in the 1960s. Left on their own to cope with schoolwork in an unfamiliar language, some students did learn to swim, but a lot more sank. In many elementary schools today, immigrant children are still taught all subject matter content in English but this is supplemented with some language help in the form of ESL pull-out classes. In ESL pull-out, children are taken out of their regular classrooms for about 30 to 45 minutes a day and given ESL instruction in a separate classroom. One obvious drawback of this model is that students have to miss classroom instruction while they are in ESL and few teachers provide students with the opportunity to make up missed classroom work.

In middle and high schools, newly arrived immigrant students face particularly tough challenges since the English used in content area subjects is


Program Models for Language Minority Students in the U.S.


Language Used in Instruction





(1) Submersion (“Sink-or- Swim”)

100% English

Mainstream education; no special help with English



Assimilating ELs into English- dominant society

(2) Submersion with ESL Pull-out

90-100% in English; may or may not include home language support

Mainstream education; students pulled out for 30-45 minutes of ESL daily

As needed





(3) Structured Immersion (Sheltered English, Content- based ESL)

90-100% English; may or may not include home language support

Subject-matter instruction at students’ level of English; students grouped for instruction

1-3 years

Assimilating ELs; quick exit to mainstream education


(4) Transitional Bilingual Education (Early-Exit)

10-50% home language; 50-90% English

Initial literacy usually in home language; some subject instruction in home language; ESL and subject matter instruction at students’ level of English

1-3 years; students exit as they become proficient in English

Assimilating ELs; English acquisition without falling behind academically

(5) Developmenta Bilingual Education (Late-Exit)

l 90% home language in K-1; home language gradually decreased to 50% or less by grade 4

Initial literacy in home language; some subject instruction in home language; ESL initially and subject matter instruction at students’ level of English

5-6 years



biliteracy; academic achievement in English


Language Used in Instruction




(6) Two-Way (Dual) Immersion

  • 90/10 model: 90% home language,
  • 10% English in early grades; 50/50 model: 50% home

language, 50% English

Emergent bilinguals and native-English speakers taught literacy and subjects in both languages; peer tutoring

5-6 years



biliteracy; academic achievement in English

Source: Adapted from Crawford, 2004, p. 42; Garda, 2009, p. 186

quite a bit more advanced than that used in the elementary school curriculum. Not only do students have to acquire English to levels comparable to those of their native-English-speaking peers, they must also meet the same grade-level standards and graduation requirements in a relatively short amount of time. Some middle and high schools place students in intensive ESL instruction (called “newcomer programs”) for a semester or a year and then place them in two or three periods of ESL instruction and sheltered instruction (e.g., sheltered math, sheltered science, sheltered history) (Valdes, 2001). Valdes (2001) notes that in many schools, ELs are isolated in a separate world of ESL, apart from the mainstream world where “real” American schooling takes place. ELs move from one sheltered class to another with other ELs and have very few opportunities to interact with native English speakers. They also have little access to authentic English and content in the sheltered classes, which are often simplified versions of regular courses adapted for students with limited English.

Valdes (2001: 16) observes that

there is much that teachers do not know about how the English language develops in second-language learners, and there is little information available to guide them in determining when ESL students at different levels can “compete” with mainstream students. Many of them, therefore, choose to have very little to do with students who speak and write very “imperfect” English.

It is estimated that two-thirds of limited-English-speaking children are not receiving the language assistance they need in order to succeed in their academic and intellectual development (Valdes, 2001). Although there has been a lot of interest among researchers and practitioners in teaching academic English to ELs recently, most teachers have vague ideas about what academic English looks like and how it should be taught in the various subject areas (but see Chapter 7).

In addition, there are numerous other factors that contribute to the poor academic performance of Hispanic students. A Pew Hispanic Center analysis of the academic performance of EL students in five states that educate 70% of the nation’s EL student population (Arizona, California, Florida, New York, and Texas) shows that ELs tend to go to schools that have low standardized test scores (Fry, 2008). The report explains that these low levels of academic performance are not solely attributable to poor achievement by EL students. These same schools report poor achievement by non-EL groups as well, and have a set of characteristics associated with poor school performance such as high student-teacher ratios, overcrowding, and many students living in poverty. The report found that when EL students are not isolated in these low-achieving schools, their gap in test score results is considerably narrower.

The Pew Hispanic Center report also found that in each of the five states, about 90% of the ELs who took the state assessments were educated in public schools in which EL students make up either a majority or a substantial minority of the student populations. In these EL-heavy schools, ELs have limited access to native English input and must learn English from other learners. Many of these students end up being “ESL-lifers,” students who stay in ESL classes year after year, without ever reaching the level of proficiency in English that is necessary to exit ESL services and be mainstreamed into English-only instruction (Valdes, 2001). What schools need to do is find ways to end the isolation of immigrant students and offer courses that are designed to develop their academic English. (We shall address the topic of academic English in Chapter 7.) In sum, there are no quick, easy solutions to the problem of poor academic performance of language minority students. The challenges of educating millions of ELs in the U.S. remain with or without bilingual education (Valdes, 2001).

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