There is a developing demand for a model of bilingual education that we haven’t yet come up with, and time is of the essence. Old models of forced immersion and English-only classrooms in public schools are becoming irrelevant. These models do not serve the realities of public education. Essentially, many teachers in public schools are bilingual educators–they teach English Learners in their general education classrooms. These students may not receive any lessons in their home language, they may be assessed by linguistically and culturally inappropriate standardized material, and their parents may not be able to help with homework. There needs to be a national shift in our approach to language teaching based in the demographic and cultural realities of our country.
Why the Current Approach is Wrong
In Chicago Public Schools working as a Bilingual Coordinator and teacher on the city’s west side, one of my most mundane tasks is updating student profiles through the CPS portal “IMPACT.” I’m sure some readers might have it open in another tab while reading this. Every year, I assign a bilingual education model to each of the 140 EL students at my school. There are two categories: Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) and Transitional Program of Instruction (TPI). The TBE category is required for all schools with more than 20 ELs of the same language, meaning most CPS schools. This model includes native language content instruction with the aim of transitioning students into mainstream, meaning all-English, classrooms.
The problem with this model is that it does not stand up to the realities we see in our classrooms. Firstly, if our instructional priority is to transition children away from their native language and towards English-only models, we are effectively treating bilingualism as a language deficit and monolingualism as the goal. With this model, students eventually receive less and less content in their native language as their English proficiency increases, and eventually none as they transition into full English proficiency.
Unfortunately, many of our EL students never get to that place. They may improve their English to a point but tend to plateau after a couple of years in the bilingual program. This is how we see students entering their 9th or 10th year in the bilingual program, still taking the mandated ACCESS test, and making minimal language growth. In terms of their native language, the picture can be even more grim. Students grow into adults unable to comfortably read or write in their parents’ language, confused about their cultural identity, and still outsiders to the dominant culture.
This brings to mind 3rd grade Latino students I teach who speak and read Spanish much like non-Latino students learning Spanish for the first time would. These are children whose parents are heavily Spanish dominant but who have received insufficient and inconsistent native language instruction, little cultural contextualization, and who feel confused and ashamed of their home language and culture. These are children who will grow up in an uneasy middle ground, where they do not develop fluency in either English or Spanish, and often get stuck at low language levels in both.
The Alternative is Ours to Build
The reality of our national identity is that we are a bilingual Latino country. Much of the West and Southwest of the country has been culturally and linguistically rooted in a fluid border, in which the distinction between Latin America and America is not at all clear. The United States is a bilingual country, and embracing that reality will create a healthier and more honest narrative for everyone.
In our public schools, the aim should not be to transition children away from the language of their culture but to uplift it. Practically, this would mean a full bilingual education from preschool to 12th grade, where students learn grade level academic content across subject areas in both English and Spanish simultaneously. Like many countries, we should expect our children to be multilingual by the time they graduate high school, not only expanding their career prospects but also affirming and valuing their cultural backgrounds and narratives. For non-EL students, there is promising research indicating that well executed dual immersion programs are highly successful if they are implemented with consistency and from the beginning of a child’s education. School districts with high numbers of EL students need to move away from the language deficit model and toward a model of language richness, where bilingualism is seen as an asset. Our choice should be moving toward educational equity and cultural relevance.