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The Opportunist Period: 1960s-1980s

Ovando (2003) points out that World War II served as the first wake-up call for the U.S. to recognize its inadequacies in foreign language instruction. Language, math, and science became a high priority in the national defense agenda during the Cold War period. The National Defense Education Act of 1958, spurred in large part by the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union the year before, raised the level of foreign language education in the U.S. However, Ovando observes that the U.S. government’s investment in foreign language education was not without contradiction—although the National Defense Education Act provided federal funding to support the study of foreign languages by English monolinguals, it did little to tap the linguistic resources already present in the country (i.e., the language skills of linguistic minorities; see also Chapter 4). Significant effort was invested in teaching foreign languages to English-speaking Americans while the same languages possessed by immigrants were purged through English-only education.

The 1960s saw a number of landmark legislations and legal challenges with regard to language minority education. More opportunities for bilingual education, albeit patchy and half-hearted, became available in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of a person’s color, race, or national origin, and led to the establishment of the Office for Civil Rights. There were also changes in immigration laws which helped to revive bilingual education. The Immigration Act of 1965 terminated an earlier national origin quota system which restricted the number of immigrants admitted from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as from the Middle East and Asia. As a result of this legislation, larger numbers of Asians and Latin Americans started to enter the U.S., leading to a major demographic shift in the U.S. Much of the linguistic and ethnic diversity seen in America today is a direct outcome of this legislation.

Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as the Bilingual Education Act (BEA), was passed in 1968. This policy was designed to address the needs of students with limited English proficiency. But the primary instructional model endorsed by the federal government was transitional bilingual education, which provides native language instruction for a limited period as a temporary bridge to English-only instruction (see also Table 1.2). In addition to bilingual education, the BEA allocated some funds for ESL programs. But the amount of federal support for these programs was always far less than was necessary to meet the needs of all the children who were eligible, and many school districts continued to ignore the needs of language minority students and failed to provide any accommodation (Wiley & Lee, 2009).

A major court decision that set a legal precedent for language minority education during this period was Lau v. Nichols. This case involved a class- action suit on behalf of Kinney Lau and 1,789 other Chinese-background students in San Francisco public schools (Crawford, 2004). The lawsuit alleged that these children were being denied equal educational opportunities because of their limited English skills. San Francisco school officials denied that there was any discrimination against the Chinese students because they were neither segregated nor treated differently from their English-speaking peers in the district. The school officials stated that the same instruction was offered to all students, regardless of national origin.

Federal district and appeals courts sided with the San Francisco school officials, but in 1974, this case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously rejected the decision of the lower courts (Crawford, 2004). The Supreme Court ruled that merely providing non-English speaking students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum does not constitute equality of treatment since these students are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education due to their limited language abilities. In other words, schools were obligated to help non-English speakers learn English so that they can have equal access to instruction given in English.

However, the Supreme Court did not mandate any specific program. Rather, it left it to the schools to determine what type of accommodation would facilitate the acquisition of English while making instruction in English comprehensible. Naturally, some confusion ensued, and many programs with a wide range of differing quality were labeled bilingual regardless of whether any model of bilingual education was actually used (Wiley & Lee, 2009).

In 1975, the Office for Civil Rights investigators made preliminary visits to 334 school districts with large numbers of language minority children and found that most districts had “utterly failed to meet their responsibilities” (Crawford, 2004). Thus, a set of guidelines, called Lau Remedies, were drawn up by the Office for Civil Rights. The guidelines instructed districts on how to identify and evaluate children with limited English skills, what instructional treatments would be appropriate, when children were ready for mainstream classrooms, and what professional standards teachers should meet (Crawford, 2004). The Office for Civil Rights embarked on a campaign of aggressive enforcement of the Lau Remedies, and many school districts undergoing compliance reviews adopted bilingual education for fear of losing federal funding.

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