Return to Bilingual Education

In this excerpt from Foundations for Multlingualism in Education: from Principles to Practice (Caslon, 2011), Ester de Jong shares an overview of the history of language policy in the United States. "Return to Bilingual Education" explores the 20th-century language policies that emerged after World War II, early bilingual education programs, and the Bilingual Education Act of 1968.

For information about the language policies that preceded and followed this period, take a look at the following other excerpts from de Jong:

Language Policy in the 1950s and 1960s

Pluralist discourses slowly found their way back into educational policy after World War II. The shift from assimilationist policies to recognition of different languages and cultures in school was due in part to a steady decline in immigration that had begun with the implementation of legal restrictions and continued during World War II. By 1950, only 8% of the total population was foreign-born, down from 15% in the early 1900s dropping even further to 4.7% in the 1970 census. This trend greatly lessened the pre-World War I anxieties about immigrants and their ability to assimilate.

Later, the civil rights movement set the stage for the recognition of minority group rights and antidiscrimination legislation. The landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that declared separate educational facilities inherently unequal began an era of integration and desegregation. The case played a major role in making equal educational opportunity a central focus of educational policies. Further, World War II had increased awareness of the need for knowing foreign languages and, under the influence of the cold war and competition with Russia, major initiatives were undertaken by the federal government to ensure a competitive act. One of these was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which promoted extensive foreign language programs for language majority speakers.

In the 1960s, a pluralistic experiment in bilingual education was initiated in Miami, Florida. In a unique move, Coral Way Elementary School made the bilingual option available to native English speakers as well as Cuban refugees (Chapter 5). For both groups, bilingualism was considered an asset and enrichment. The school's demonstrated success with both groups in both languages encouraged several other schools in Miami and other states (Arizona, California, Illinois, Texas, Washington, DC) to take a similar approach (Andersson, 1971; Mackey & Beebe, 1977).

However, this pluralist educational approach was the exception. Most language policies initiated during this period were based on an assimilationist approach, though these policies promoted assimilation in a more gentle way than those advocated during the Americanization movement in the 1920s. Bilingual approaches were endorsed and implemented but mostly with an assimilationist intent (Spener, 1988). The assimilationist bilingual discourse, or reluctant bilingual discourse (Zhou, 1997), sees the student's native language as a temporary bridge to learning the societal language, English. Though room for more pluralist interpretation existed (at the local implementation level), this "reluctant bilingual discourse" dominated federal legislation as well as court decisions and their enforcement.

Bilingual Education Act (1968-2000)

Bilingual Education Act

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was a major effort by the Johnson administration to address the effects of poverty on educational and economic achievement. Programs such as Head Start (preschool) and Title I (supplemental support services for at-risk students) were initiated under this law. Combined with the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, Title VII of the ESEA, the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) of 1968, was to shape much of the schooling of minority students, in particular ELLs.

The BEA was the first comprehensive federal intervention in the schooling of language minority students. Its uncontroversial passage in 1968 reflected agreement over the underachievement of a steadily increasing number of language minority students in schools. The BEA was introduced by Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas, who noted that Spanish-speaking students in his state completed, on average, 4 years of schooling less than their Anglo peers. The lack of resources and trained personnel and the absence of special programs to meet the needs of these students contributed to this educational failure. Yarborough proposed bilingual education as a solution to what he perceived was a problem of English proficiency.

The problem is that many of our school-age children come from homes where the mother tongue is not English. As a result, these children enter school not speaking English and not able to understand the instructions that is [sic] all conducted in English. [There is] an urgent need for this legislation to provide equal educational opportunity for those children who do not come to school with English-speaking ability. We received almost unanimous enthusiasm and support for this legislation as being an effective remedial program. (US Congress 1967:37037; cited in Bangura & Muo, 2001, p. 58; italics added)

Note that Yarborough presents bilingual education as a remedial program, not an enrichment program like the bilingual education program at Coral Way. Only with the 1974 re-authorization of the BEA was bilingual education formally defined as a program where "there is instruction given in, and the study of English, and, to the extent necessary to allow a child to progress effectively through the educational system, the native language of the children of limited English-speaking ability" (Lyons, 1990, p. 68).

The BEA was not a mandate for bilingual education. Since education is the responsibility of the states, the federal government can only create financial incentives through grant programs. The federal government's influence is in setting the criteria for the allocation of funds: if states or districts want the money, they have to meet the federal requirements. Under the BEA, districts had to implement bilingual education programs for the specified target groups in order to receive federal funding. It thus provided an incentive for districts to consider bilingual instruction options.

Reauthorization of BEA

The history of the re-authorizations of the BEA (1974, 1978, 1984, 1988, 1994) reveals changes in the political climate and changing views about the place of linguistic diversity in American society (Gándara, Moran, & García, 2004; Wiese & Garcia, 1998). The early re-authorizations (1974, 1978) restricted the BEA on students with limited English proficiency and maintained a transitional focus, ambiguous enough for both reluctant bilingual and additive bilingual interpretations (see Figure 6.2).

  • Under the Reagan Administration: More assimilationist provisions (focus on English language acquisition, quick mainstreaming into all-English education, and funding for nonbilingual programs, such as Special Alternative Instructional Programs) were added to the BEA in 1984 and 1988 under the Reagan administration. Reagan's secretary of education, William Bennett, declared bilingual education a failure and proposed English as a second language as a better alternative. Bennett decried the loss of focus on the goal of the BEA, which he saw as "fluency in English" (Crawford, 1992, pp. 359-362).
  • Under the Clinton Administration: Only the 1994 reauthorization of the BEA by the Clinton administration was pluralist in scope because it funded bilingual programs aimed at language maintenance and development and focused on content as well as language and literacy development.

Figure 6.2. Key changes in the Bilingual Education Act (BEA), 1968-2000

1968First Bilingual Education Act. Targets low-income nonspeaking and limited-English-speaking students; no definition of bilingual education.
1974Mandates equal educational opportunity through bilingual education, defined as "There is instruction given in, and study of, English and, to the extent necessary to allow a child progress effectively through the educational system, the native language of the children of limited English-speaking ability." Low-income criterion is dropped and the eligibility criteria changes to limited English proficient (LEP). Native Americans are included as a target group, as are native English speakers. Funds are made available for professional development and dissemination of instructional materials.
1978Declares that instruction in English should "allow a child to achieve competence in the English language" and that increased parental involvement in planning programs and school districts must have a plan for institutionalization of the program after the grant has ended.
1984Declares that transitional bilingual education programs are to provide "structured English-language instruction, and, to the extent necessary to allow a child to achieve competence in the English language, instruction in the child's native language." Three-quarters of the funding allocated to transitional bilingual education (TBE) programs. An unspecified amount is allocated for developmental1 bilingual education. Funding is also provided for special alternative instructional programs (SAIPs), which do not use the native language (4%).
1988Defines grant categories similar to those provided in 1984. SAIPs now receive 25% of the funds. Participation in TBE or SAIPs may be up to 3 years.
1994Goals: "to ensure that limited English proficiency students master English as they develop high levels of academic attainment in content areas." Further, "the use of a "child's native language and culture in classroom instruction can (A) promote self-esteem and contribute to academic achievement and learning English [and] … (C) develop our nation's national language resources thus promoting our nation's competitiveness in the global economy." Preference is given to programs that develop bilingual proficiency in both English and another language for all participating students. Target group specified: LEP, indigenous language populations, recent immigrants. 25% cap on SAIP can be lifted if applicant has demonstrated that bilingual education is not feasible.
2001BEA is discontinued. No Child Left Behind provides for indigenous language maintenance only through Title VII. For ELLs, Title III specifies that the goal is to "attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same challenging … achievement standards as all children are expected to meet." Further, districts should "develop high-quality language instruction educational programs … to prepare limited English proficiency students … to enter all-English instruction settings."

Figure 6.3. Federal law and ELLs

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20th-Century Language Policy for Native Americans

Legislation for Native Americans has taken a slightly different route. After the brief renaissance of instruction in Native American languages in the 1930s, the period immediately after World War II saw a return to assimilationist practices. The federal government dismantled reservations and prompted a major migration of Native Americans to urban areas. Though the government's actions were intended to fragment the indigenous population, the shared experience of loneliness and stress often ensured closer connections.

Native American education was not put on the agenda until the 1960s, first under the 1966 ESEA and then as part of the 1968 BEA. The 1970s saw a renewed interest in Native American bilingual education, increased control over educational programming by the Native American community with passage of the Indian Education Act of 1972 and the 1975 Indian Self-determination and Educational Assistance Act, and a growing network of Native American educators through the establishment of organizations such as the American Indian Language Development Institute.

An important piece of legislation was the Native American Languages Act (1990), which granted the right of indigenous language groups to maintain their language and culture (Glass, 1988; Havighurst, 1978; McCarty, 1993; McCarty, 1994; McCarty, 1998; Reyhner, 1993; Russell, 2002; Szasz, 1983).

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Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


de Jong, Ester. (2011). Foundations for Multilingualism in Education. Excerpt from Chapter 5, "Language Policy in the United States." (pp. 126-138). ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


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  1. The BEA's use of the term "developmental" here parallels the use of "dual language" (Chapter 5), including maintenance bilingual education and two-way immersion.


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