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

Back to top

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).

Back to top


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.


Abedi, J. (2004). The No Child Left Behind Act and English language learners: Assessment and accountability issues. Educational Researcher, 33 (1), 4-14.

Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for distinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1975-1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Alba, R., Logan, J., Lutz, A., & Stults, B. (2002). Only English by the third generation? Loss and preservation of the mother tongue among the grandchildren of contemporary immigrants. Demography, 39 (3), 467-484.

Andersson, T. (1971). Bilingual education: The American experience. Modern Language Journal, 55 (7), 427-440.

Bangura, A. K., & Muo, M. C. (2001). United States Congress and bilingual education. New York: Peter Lang.

Berlin, I. (1980). Time, space, and the evolution of Afro-American society on British mainland North America. American Historical Review, 85 (1), 44-78.

Berrol, S.C. (1982). Public schools and immigrants: The New York City experience. In R. J. Weiss (Ed.) American education and the European immigrant: 1840-1940 (pp.31-43). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Berrol, S. C. (1995). Growing up American: Immigrant children in America; Then and Now. New York: Twayne.

Brisk, M. E. (1981). Language policies in American education. Journal of Education, 63 (1), 3-15.

Brisk, M. E. (2006). Bilingual education: From compensatory to quality education (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Brumberg, S. B. (1986). Going to America, going to school: The Jewish immigrant public school encounter in turn-of-the-century New York City. New York: Praeger.

Castellanos, D. (1983). The best of two worlds: Bilingual-bicultural education in the U.S. Trenton: New Jersey State Department of Education.

Cho, G., Shin, F., & Krashen, S. (2004). What do we know about heritage languages? What do we need to learn about them? Multicultural Education,11 (4), 23-26.

Conklin, N. F., & Lourie, M. A. (1983). A host of tongues: Language communities in the United States. New York: Free Press.

Crawford, J. (1992). Language loyalties: A source book on the official English controversy (4th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Crawford, J. (1998). The bilingual education story: Why can't the news media get it right? Paper presented to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, June 26. Retrieved August, 25, 2005, from jcrawford/NAHJ.htm.

Crawford, J. (1999). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory, and practice. (4th ed.) Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services.

Crawford, J. (2000). At war with diversity. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Crawford, J. (2004a). No Child Left Behind: Misguided approach to school accountability for English language learners. Paper presented at Forum on Ideas to Improve the NCLB Accountability Provisions for Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners, sponsored by the Center on Education Policy, Washington, DC, September 14, 2004. Retrieved June 10, 2008, from

Crawford, J. (2004b). Educating English learners: Language diversity in the classroom (5th ed.) . Culver City, CA: Bilingual Education Services.

Daniels, R. (1990). Coming to America: A history of immigration and ethnicity in American life. New York: HarperCollins.

Dick, G. and McCarty, T. (1997) Reclaiming Navajo: Language renewal in an American Indian community school. In N. Hornberger (ed.) Indigenous Literacies in the Americas: Language Planning from the Bottom Up (pp. 69-94). Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Dicker, S. J. (2003). Languages in America: A pluralist view (2nd ed.). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual.

Donato, R., & Garcia, H. (1992). Language segregation in desegregated schools: A question Earle, C. (1992). Pioneers of providence: The Anglo-American experience, 1492-1792. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 82 (3), 478-499.

Escamilla, K., Shannon, S. M., Carlos, S., & Garcia, J. (2003). Breaking the code: Colorado's defeat of the anti-bilingual education initiative (Amendment 31). Bilingual Research Journal, 27(3), 357-382.

Estes, J. (1999). How many indigenous American languages are spoken in the United States? By how many speakers? Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Evans, B. A., & Hornberger, N. H. (2005). No Child Left Behind: Repealing and unpeeling federal language education policy in the United States. Language Policy, 4, 87-106.

Fogleman, A. (1998). From slaves, convicts, and servants to free passengers: The transformation of immigration in the era of the American Revolution Journal of American History 85 (1), 43-76.

Francis, N., & Reyhner, J. (2002). Language and literacy teaching for indigenous education: A bilingual approach. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Galindo, R. (1997). Language wars: The ideological dimensions of the debates on bilingual education. Bilingual Research Journal, 21 (2&3), 103-141.

Gándara, P. (2000). In the aftermath of the storm: English learners in the post-227 era. Bilingual Research Journal, 24(1&2), 1-13.

Gándara, P., Moran, R., & García, E. E. (2004). Legacy of Brown: Lau and language policy in the United States. Review of Research in Education,28, 27-46.

Garcia, E. E., & Curry-Rodriguez, J. E. (2000). The education of limited English proficient students in California schools: An assessment of the influence of Proposition 227 in selected districts and schools. Bilingual Research Journal, 24 (1&2), 15-36.

Getz, L. M. (1997). Schools of their own: The education of Hispanos in New Mexico, 1850-1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Glass, T. E. (1988). Federal policy in Native American education, 1925-1985. Journal of Educational Policy, 3(2), 105-121.

Gonzalez, R. D. (2001). Lessons from colonial language policies. In R.D. Gonzalez (Ed.) Language ideologies: Critical perspectives on the official English movement (pp. 195-219). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Handlin, O. (1982). Education and the European immigrant, 1820-1920. In B. J. Weiss (Ed.), American education and the European immigrant: 1840-1940 (pp. 3-16). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Harper, C. A., de Jong, E., & Platt, E. J. (2008). Marginalizing English as a second language teacher expertise: The exclusionary consequence of No Child Left Behind. Language Policy, 7, 267-284.

Hartmann, E. G. (1967). The movement to Americanize the immigrant. New York: AMS Press.

Havighurst, R. J. (1978, March). Indian education since 1960. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 436, 13-26.

Heath, S. B. (1977). A national language academy? Debate in the new nation. Linguistics, 189, 9-43.

Higham, J. (1998). Strangers in the land: Patterns of American nativism, 1860-1925 (4th ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Hill, H. C. (1919). The Americanization movement. American Journal of Sociology 24 (6), 609-642.

Hinton, L. (1994). Flutes of fire: Essays on California Indian languages. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books.

Howard, E. R., Sugarman, J., & Christian, D. (2003). Trends in two-way immersion education: A review of the research. Report 63. Baltimore: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk.

Kloss, H. (1998). The American bilingual tradition. Washington, DC, and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Kondo-Brown, K. (2005). Differences in language skills: Heritage language learners. Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 563-581.

Krashen, S. D. (2004). The acquisition of academic English by children in two-way programs: What does the research say? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Bilingual Education, Albuquerque, NM. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from articles/the_2-way_issue/all.html.

Lindholm-Leary, K. J. (2001). Dual language education. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Linton, A. (2007). Spanish-English immersion in the wake of California Proposition 227: Five cases. Intercultural Education, 18 (2), 111-128.

Lyons, J. J. (1990, March). The past and future directions of federal bilingual-education policy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 508, 66-80.

Macedo, D., Dendrinos, B., & Gounari, P. (2003). The hegemony of English. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Mackey, W., & Beebe, V. N. (1977). Bilingual schools for a bicultural community: Miami's adaptation to the Cuban refugees. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

McCarty, T. L. (1993). Federal language policy and American Indian education. Bilingual Research Journal, 17(1&2), 13-34.

McCarty, T. L. (1994). Bilingual education policy and the empowerment of American Indian communities (1). Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, 14, 23-42.

McCarty, T. L. (1998). Schooling, resistance and American Indian languages. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 132, 27-41.

McCarty, T. L. (2003). Revitalizing indigenous languages in homogenizing times. Comparative Education, 39 (2), 147-163.

Menken, K. (2006). Teaching to the test: How No Child Left Behind impacts language policy, curriculum, and instruction for English language learners. Bilingual Research Journal, 30(2), 521-546.

Menken, K. (2008). English learners left behind: Standardized testing as language policy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

O'Brien, K. B. (1961). Education, Americanization, and the Supreme Court: The 1920s. American Quarterly, 13(2), 161-171.

Olneck, M. R. (1989). Americanization and the education of immigrants, 1900-1925: An analysis of symbolic action. American Journal of Education, 97(4), 398-423.

Ovando, C. J., Collier, V., & Combs, M. C. (2003). Bilingual and ESL classrooms: Teaching in multicultural contexts. New York: McGraw Hill.

Pavlenko, A. (2005). "Ask each pupil about her methods of cleaning": Ideologies of language and gender in Americanization instruction. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 8(4), 275-297.

Perlmann, J. (1990, March). Historical legacies: 1840-1920. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 508, 27-37.

Peyton, J. K., Lewelling, V., W. , & Winke, P. (2001). Spanish for Spanish speakers: Developing dual language proficiency. Retrieved March 12, 2006, from

Peyton, J. K., Ranard, D., & McGinnis, S. (2001). Heritage language in America: Preserving a national resource; Language in education-Theory and practice. McHenry, IL: Delta Systems Company.

Read, A. W. (1937). Bilingualism in the Middle Colonies, 1725-1775. American Speech, 12(2), 93-99.

Reyhner, J. (1993). American Indian language policy and school success. Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, 12(3), 35-59.

Roca, A., & Colombi, M. C. (2003). Mi lengua: Spanish as a heritage language in the United States. Washington, DC: George Washington University Press.

Ruiz, R. (1984). Orientations in language planning. NABE Journal, 7(2), 15-34.

Russell, C. (2002). Language, violence, and Indian mis-education. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 26(4), 97-112.

Schlossman, S. L. (1983a). Is there an American tradition of bilingual education? German in the public elementary schools, 1840-1919. American Journal of Education, 91(2), 139-186.

Schlossman, S. L. (1983b). Self-evident remedy? George I. Sanchez, segregation, and enduring dilemmas in bilingual education. Teachers College Record, 84(4), 871-907.

Schmidt, R. S. (2000). Language policies and identity politics in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Spener, D. (1988). Transitional bilingual education and the socialization of immigrants. Harvard Educational Review, 58(2), 133-153. Szasz, M. C. (1983). American Indian education: Historical perspective. Peabody Journal of Education, 61(1), 109-112.

Valdés, G., Fishman, J. A., Chavez, R., & William, P. (2006). Developing minority language resources: The case of Spanish in California. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Wiese, A.-M., & Garcia, E. E. (1998). The Bilingual Education Act: Language minority students and equal educational opportunity. Bilingual Research Journal, 22(1), 1-18.

Wiley, T. G. (1996). Languages and planning policies. In S. L. McKay & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language teaching (pp. 103-148). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wiley, T. G. (2000). Continuity and change in the function of language ideologies in the United States. In T. Ricento (Ed.), Ideology, politics, and language policies: Focus on English (pp. 67-85). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Woolard, K. A. (1989). Sentences in the language prison: The rhetorical structuring of an American language policy debate. American Ethnologist,16(2), 268-278.

Wright, W. E., & Choi, D. (2006). The impact of language and high-stakes testing policies on elementary school English language learners in Arizona. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 14(13).

Wright, W. E. (2005). The political spectacle of Arizona's Proposition 203. Educational Policy, 19(5), 662-700.

Zhou, M. (1997). Growing up American: The challenge confronting immigrant children and children of immigrants. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 63-95.


  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.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

More by this author

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.