The Elephant in the Education Policy Room

James J. Lyons argues that multilingualism should be the centerpiece of federal education policy

More than three years after the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) expired, a new federal law is still not in sight. Despite general agreement that the NCLB is flawed and unworkable, Congress continues to trudge along a seemingly endless path towards reauthorizing the Act in the absence of consensus on what should take its place.

Congressional inertia may be related to the unprecedented activity, indeed hyperactivity, of education interest groups involved in the reauthorization process and the proliferation of organizations claiming an interest in the legislative outcome. The fact that the Obama Administration did not submit draft legislation for a new ESEA has also contributed to the lack of progress.

Little of the discussion on fashioning a new federal education law has focused on children with limited English, and even less on making multilingualism a goal of K-12 schooling. Yet, domestic demographics and international realities make a coherent and thoughtful national policy on second language learners and multilingualism more important than ever before. Multilingualism is the elephant in the education policy room — inescapably obvious but fundamentally ignored.

New Mexican Trailblazers
Last month, four New Mexico-chartered non-profit education organizations called for the inclusion in the new ESEA of programs to improve schooling for non-English-background students and to encourage the development of multilingualism. The call for legislative action took the form of a comprehensive policy brief sponsored by the Center for the Education and Study of Diverse Populations, Dual Language Education of New Mexico, the New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education, and the Alliance for Multilingual, Multicultural Education.

That New Mexico took the lead in pushing for multilingual education in a new ESEA is hardly surprising given the state’s history and population. The area encompassed by the state was part of Mexico until it was ceded to the U.S. in 1848. Most of New Mexico’s first citizens spoke one or more of several indigenous Native American languages and the colonial language of Spanish. New Mexico’s constitution explicitly sanctioned bilingualism. Today, the “Land of Enchantment” is one of the most bilingual states in the nation.

More Curse Than Blessing
According to these New Mexico organizations, the only significant benefit students from non-English backgrounds derived from the current NCLB law is increased public recognition that U.S. schools are failing to educate limited-English-proficient (LEP) students and that change is required. This benefit is a result of the demographic “subgroup” reporting requirements for student assessments and the accountability sanctions of the NCLB. “But identifying a problem and solving it are quite different matters,” they note.

NCLB repealed the Bilingual Education Act (BEA). Enacted in 1968, the BEA reflected the federal government’s special obligation to language-minority students, their families, and the schools they attend. Indeed, the presence of virtually all language-minority students in schools is directly attributable to actions of the federal government respecting territorial annexation, immigration and refugee policies, or the conduct of war. The BEA also represented an effort to ameliorate the horrific consequences of past government language repression policies like the federally-sponsored Indian Boarding Schools.

Repeal of the BEA signaled the end of the federal government’s commitment to building the capacity of state and local education agencies to provide equal and effective educational programs for language-minority students. Competitive grants provided under the BEA focused on the development and implementation of programs specifically designed for LEP students. Funded programs included specially designed English-only programs, programs which made use of students’ native languages for transitional support, and programs designed to develop full bilingualism and biliteracy of both LEP and native-English-speaking students. The grants included support for the training and hiring of teachers, administrators, instructional assistants and education specialists; the acquisition and development of instructional and assessment materials; and the design and implementation of programs to educate and engage parents. In contrast, the NCLB formula grants to school districts enrolling LEP students (averaging less than $100 per student) are neither designed for nor tied to the development of institutional capacity.

Under the BEA, institutions of higher education received grants to develop teacher training programs focused on the instruction of LEP students and tuition stipends were provided to train bilingual and ESL teachers. The BEA also supported graduate fellowships in bilingual and ESL education which produced a generation of university scholars who conducted research on best educational practices and taught aspiring teachers how to instruct LEP students. Many of the BEA-supported graduate fellows are approaching retirement age, and the NCLB has not produced a single replacement.

Maybe the most destructive change brought about by the repeal of the BEA and enactment of NCLB was a narrowing of educational goals and objectives for LEP students. The U.S. Education Department’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs was renamed the Office of English Language Acquisition, and all references to the development of bilingualism were purged from the ESEA. English language development became the new and almost exclusive goal of instruction for LEP students, and rapidity became the mandated metric for measuring instructional success. Indeed, NCLB even instituted a new term for LEP students denominating them “English language learners.” While the label “English language learner” describes every U.S. public school student, its application to LEP students has served to narrow understanding of their manifold educational needs and to funnel instruction into a narrow and ineffective “English-first, English-only” curricular channel.

Against the Demographic Tide
NCLB’s movement away from building public school capacity to instruct LEP students effectively could not have been more untimely. Between 1998-2008, the LEP student enrollment in grades K-12 grew by 53 percent while the overall student population increased by only eight percent. This growth is projected to continue, and the U.S. Department of Education predicts that LEP students will constitute one-quarter of the nation’s K-12 enrollment by 2025.

Most U.S. teachers report that they are unprepared to instruct LEP students effectively. In a 2001 National Center for Education Statistics survey, only 27 percent of teachers felt that they were “very well prepared” to meet the needs of LEP students while 12 percent reported that they were “not at all prepared.” Despite the on-going growth of the LEP population, and despite a nationwide shortage of teachers trained in bilingual or ESL education, most college-and university-based teacher training programs give little attention to preparing teachers for the linguistic diversity of U.S. classrooms.

A 2009 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that basic teacher preparation programs in the U.S. were far more likely to provide some training related to special education than to the instruction of LEP students even though the proportion of students who are LEP is substantially higher than the proportion of students with disabilities.

Even in a state with relatively high teacher certification standards such as California, where, since 1999, new teachers have been required to receive special training for the instruction of dual language learners, only half of new teachers have done so. And according to a 2005 study of California classroom teachers, 43 percent of teachers whose classes consist of a majority of LEP students received no more than one in-service training session in the past five years on how to instruct these students.

The Magnitude and Mechanics of LEP Educational Failure
Empirical data show that LEP students, the most educationally needy group in the nation, are the population which is poorest served by our public schools. In 2009, three quarters of all LEP 8th graders scored below the “basic” level in reading and math proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), compared to one-quarter of English-proficient (EP) 8th graders. While approximately one third of EP 8th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level in reading and math in 2009, fewer than one in twenty LEP 8th graders scored at or above this level.

The educational achievement gap separating LEP and EP students documented in the NAEP reflects other school disparities which foster an intolerable educational attainment gap. LEP students are disproportionately enrolled in special education; are more often forced to repeat grades than their EP counterparts; and have the highest school dropout rate and the lowest rate of college attendance and college completion of all demographic student subgroups.

The mechanics of failure start at outset of public education for LEP students. One of the first goals of schooling is to develop literacy – the ability to read and write. To achieve the goal of literacy, schools build upon the oral and aural language skills children possess when they enter school, skills which have been developed through thousands of hours of parent-child communication in the home. These skills are considerable; an average kindergarten student has a vocabulary of approximately 2,000 words and can use those words to express thoughts and feelings. For most native-English-speaking children, the development of literacy based on the language skills they learned at home is a continuous, relatively smooth, and uncomplicated process usually achieved in a few years.

The path to literacy for most LEP students is different, and by comparison, tortuous. Because most American teachers are monolingual English speakers, they are not able to understand and utilize the native language skills LEP students possess. Thus, most LEP students must start all over developing a new vocabulary in English before they are taught to read and write. This discontinuity in the natural development of literacy disrupts cognitive development, delays learning, and negatively affects a child’s self-confidence and sense of efficacy. At the same time, the disjuncture between home and school language presents a formidable obstacle to LEP parents who need to participate in their children’s education.

Academic content can, of course, be taught in any language, including the home languages of students. Substantive knowledge learned in a non-English language is naturally transferred into English as an LEP student’s English language skills develop. Thus, academic content learning need not be put “on hold” until a child develops the academic English skills appropriate to his or her grade if instruction is provided by a bilingual teacher proficient in the student’s home language. And when the pupil’s home language is used for content instruction, LEP parents can become active partners in their children’s education and can share their knowledge with them.

The problems LEP students experience in our schools stem not only from the monolingualism of most of their teachers but also from the widespread lack of knowledge in the education community about second language development and its relationship to academic learning. While an LEP student can reach an acceptable level of conversational English in a few years, the development of literacy skills required for grade-level content learning takes substantially longer. Indeed, there is near unanimity within the professional educational research and language development communities that it takes between six and eight years for a LEP student to achieve academic language parity with native-English-speaking student peers.

But the time-framed accountability provisions of the NCLB pay no heed to this reality. Racing for success, most schools terminate special instructional programs for LEP students on the basis of a student’s mastery of oral English proficiency and rudimentary literacy skills. Students served in this fashion experience academic difficulties in content learning, difficulties which cascade as the level of academic language proficiency needed for successful content learning increases with each grade level. And so, countless LEP students fall behind in their studies of math, science, history, and civics because they lack the academic language skills required for success. Frustrated with the pace of their academic progress, a significant number of these students drop out of school before graduation, sometimes with the subtle encouragement of school personnel who are fearful of NCLB’s penalties for low test scores.

Putting Multilingualism to Work
The New Mexico education organizations urge the Obama administration to follow the “starting principles” the President enunciated during in his campaign. During a May 28, 2008 town hall meeting on education in Thornton, Colorado, Senator Obama was asked about his views on bilingual education. He responded:
“Understand that my starting principle is everybody should be bilingual or everybody should be trilingual. We as a society do a really bad job teaching foreign languages, and it is costing us when it comes to being competitive in a global marketplace.”

According to the Associated Press report of the campaign event, Obama concluded his answer by saying that “immigrant students must learn English eventually so they can fully assimilate into American society,” but that he was “open to teaching them in their native languages if that is the best way to help them learn.”

The New Mexico organizations term the President’s criticism of foreign language teaching in this country “understated,” noting that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that has not advanced beyond the goal of single-language literacy in its education policy. Multilingual education is the norm in many Asian and African countries and throughout the Middle East. All European Union countries, including the national birthplace of English, the United Kingdom, provide instruction in at least two languages to their public school students. As Rep. Judy Chu recently noted, “Twenty out of the 25 leading industrialized countries start teaching second languages from K to 5th grade and 21 of the 31 countries in the European Union require nine years of second language learning.”

The Children Shall Lead Us
Foreign language education experts stress the importance of several factors for effective language learning. Languages are best learned through practice in the context of ordinary living, when they are learned through natural use, and when they are learned in an enjoyable way. Moreover, languages are best learned from native speakers. All of these factors are present in two-way bilingual programs where students learn language from each other as well as from the teacher. At the same time, two-way dual language programs increase all students’ sense of self-confidence and self-worth, because for part of the day they are sharing their knowledge with their classmates.

More than 11 million U.S. students — one of every five — enter school speaking a language other than English. Together they speak virtually every language in the world and many more that are indigenous to this country. Approximately 80 percent speak Spanish, the most widely studied foreign language by native-English-speaking students.

Two-way dual language instructional programs which enable all children to master English and a second language have proven successful in communities across the U.S. Research shows that students in these programs develop high levels of multiple language proficiency, demonstrate improved performance in academic content mastery, and enjoy the cognitive, social and economic benefits associated with multilingualism.

Dual language instructional programs for all children should be the centerpiece of the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Federal policy should treasure and develop, not trash and discard, the rich linguistic resources U.S. students bring to school. Their language skills and cultural knowledge can increase our national security, ensure our economic competitiveness, and advance American collaboration and leadership across the globe.

James J. Lyons ( is a policy attorney in Arlington, Virginia, with a 40-year career in education and civil rights. He authored the policy brief for the New Mexico education organizations referred to in this article. The policy brief at: