Top 10 Questions Parents Should Ask About Bilingual Education at their Child's Campus
Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. and Adela Solis, Ph.D.
Parental involvement in education provides a unique opportunity for parents to grow in their roles as teachers and decisionmakers. Parents have an opportunity to help their children learn by helping with instruction at home and at school. They also can influence learning by providing input into decisions about programs designed to address their children's special needs.
To be influential, however, parents need to understand how schools and their programs operate. When experts look at this, they often see that parents are not informed about critical ways the schools are supposed to help their children. They see also that parents usually are not sufficiently confident to volunteer their expertise as parents for school activities or to ask key questions about the teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms.
This lack of understanding is particularly problematic for parents of language minority students who are not proficient in English, either because they do not speak English well themselves or because they feel alienated from the school system. It is critical that they comprehend that schools have the responsibility to help their children and that they know exactly how this charge should be dispensed. Additionally, they should be aware of the parental role and responsibility that school systems have designed for them.
The parent of a child who is limited in English proficiency can take steps to become more involved in school by first asking key questions about the programs that the school offers, or should offer, for limitedEnglishproficient (LEP) students. In Texas, this is a program of bilingual education or English as a second language (ESL) instruction. Although bilingual and ESL programs have been part of the school curricula for a long time, there are still many misconceptions. It is crucial that parents receive clarification and guidance on these programs because, today, they are still very viable instructional approaches for helping their kids succeed in school.
Bilingual Education in Texas
Bilingual education is a program of instruction that uses a student's primary language as a tool for instruction while he or she begins learning English - the second language of the student. Only students who have been identified as speaking little or no English are offered this special approach. The program is meant to help the student for several years until it is determined that he or she can successfully handle academic work entirely in English. In addition to the teaching of subject matter in the primary language, the program provides English instruction using ESL teaching methods (Sosa, 1993). This special approach is referred to transitional bilingual education. It encompasses both bilingual instruction and ESL instruction. In Texas, bilingual education programs are SpanishEnglish programs since most LEP children are from a Spanishspeaking background.
Bilingual education or ESL programs are required by law in Texas for students who speak little or no English and who need help in learning English and school curricula that is in English. The Texas law was first enacted in 1975 by the Texas legislature. Under the latest education law which was passed n 1994, known as Senate Bill 1, these programs are still required.
The Commissioner of Education, in consultation with the State Board of Education, issues rules that guide the implementation of the law. These rules are entitled, commissioner's Rules Concerning State Plan for Educating LimitedEnglishProficient Students (Texas Education Agency, 1996). The rules outline in detail how bilingual education and ESL programs should be structured and carried out. Staff from the Texas Education Agency monitor school districts to ensure that they establish programs when needed and that the programs abide by the rules.
Parents play key roles in the education of their children. They play the role of advisor by cooperating with the teachers in learning more about the children and in describing what the expectations for the children are. When teachers genuinely ask parents to play this role, they set the stage to establish a working relationship based on mutual respect and trust. A relationship based on trust and a genuine belief that parents are crucial in providing the best education for their children provides the backdrop for a successful educational experience.
The other major role that parents play is the advocate role where parents are vigilant to ensure that their children get the education that will prepare them to make those important choices when they graduate and that they have the academic and social skills to continue their education at the university level or to enter the workplace at the time of graduation. In either case, parents should see that the student was not tracked into one or the other and that the student had options. As an advocate for the best educational opportunities, parents must ensure that instructional programs are implemented the right way and that administrators and teachers guard the integrity of the programs.
At some key junctures, parents must ask questions about the quality and the integrity of the bilingual education program being implemented in the school. Parents must question the school's bilingual education program when enrolling their children in school. Furthermore, they must question the quality of the program if their children are not progressing satisfactorily academically. There is a need to question when students in bilingual education programs are not meeting state standards and consequently are staying behind other children in the acquisition of academic content.
In Texas, many children in SpanishEnglish bilingual education programs who are not ready to take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test in English are taking the Spanish version and are scoring low even after four years of instruction in a bilingual education program. This is sufficient reason to start questioning the quality of the bilingual education program being implemented in the school. Ten key questions that parents must ask are discussed below.
1. Does the school district have policies that support and value the contributions of bilingual education in the community?
Policies passed by the school board and adhered to at the campus level are statements that support and lend credence to certain actions that must occur at the campus or classroom level. Policies are statements that support a philosophy about student learning and success. These policies become the voice of the school district and tell teacher and all school personnel how the school board thinks and expects the schools to act. Policies that cast a doubt about the value of bilingual education are usually interpreted at the school level as permission to do otherwise or to give little attention to the issue. Parents must examine these policies and push for the revision of policies to ensure quality educational opportunities for all children. Parents have a key responsibility as advocates for the rights of children to demand policies that support and value bilingual education, especially for the LEP student who is in need for this type of instruction.
2. Does the school value and support bilingual education as a most promising instructional program for children who are of limited English proficiency?
A school that communicates to its faculty and community that a certain program is suspect creates a hostile environment that dooms that program to failure before it is given a chance to succeed. Programs that face this predicament rarely succeed. Such is the case in many schools about bilingual education. This feeling stems from a perception about the children to be served by the program or a lack of understanding of the benefits of bilingual education. In some cases, it stems from school personnel's inability to implement a program that requires that they know two languages well to teach reading and writing and to do so in both languages.
Where bilingual education has been a success is in schools that share a common vision for the education of all children and who have high expectations about them. These are schools that adhere to the research findings that tell us that rushing bilingual children to learn English without first formalizing their dominance of the first language creates difficulties in acquiring the academic content and in learning English well to be successful in school at the secondary level.
Parents must make sure that schools have the basic knowledge about bilingual education and that their bilingual programs adhere to recent research findings. Parents should ask questions such as:
- What does the school do in order to make sure that all teachers know about bilingual education, not only the bilingual teachers?
- What are administrators doing about supporting and promoting bilingual education? What is the school doing to ensure that my children get the best education?
3. Is the bilingual education program given high status or at least seen as important as any other successful program in the school?
The status given to bilingual education by administrators and teachers in the campus will determine to a great extent the success of the program in meeting the needs of LEP children. Primary language instruction in Spanish helps in at least two ways First, through Spanish the child can learn concepts and develop skills in the core "content areas," such as math, science and social studies while he or she is mastering the skills of English. Second, instruction in Spanish develops or improves the child's skills in this language. In many cases, children's competence in Spanish is only in the oral skills. Other children's Spanish skills may be latent, or hiding, in the subconscious because of lack of practice. Yet, these students identify with the language because, through it, they can stay connected to family and friends in the community. Staying connected is an important element in positive motivation and selfconcept development, and these attitudes and feelings influence student learning in general.
4. Is the bilingual education program given the necessary resources to function effectively?
School districts are allocated additional funds for the resources needed to implement a quality bilingual education program. Many times these funds are not used as effectively as they could be to upgrade the quality of the bilingual education program. Many programs do not have the qualified teachers to implement the program, and the school district does not take the necessary steps to acquire these qualified teachers. There is no attempt to grow its own bilingual teachers in the community.
Parents should ask questions about the qualifications of the teachers, their commitment to preserve the integrity of the bilingual program and the opportunities in the school district to upgrade or refine the teachers' skills to address the needs of LEP students. Is this commitment with the bilingual education teachers or with teachers across the board?
5. Are all teachers aware of the principles and the research that support bilingual education?
Teachers have varying levels of preparation to become effective bilingual education teachers for our children. Teachers who have been in the field for several years need to be aware of new knowledge that is emerging through research and experience. At a minimum, teachers must adhere to a set of principles that are based on the most current research. For example, parents must ask questions that address these principles. Some of these questions are:
- Why is a dual language program a better approach to use in a bilingual setting?
- Why is the first language important in the instruction of LEP students?
- How do you show students that both languages are of equal value and importance in the instruction?
- How do you show the class that both cultures are important and have contributed to the welfare of this country?
- When do you bring parents into the decisionmaking process of the school?
6. Is the bilingual education instructional design based on currently recognized principles of bilingual education that are supported by research?
The bilingual education program rules calls for "structured" instruction in the two languages. This means that the amount of Spanish and English instruction for each student should be planned and should be based on the level of proficiency in the two languages. Students with no English skills could spend up to 90 percent of the time in Spanish instruction. Students who have intermediate level skills in English could spend as little as 10 percent of their instruction in the primary language. Assessment information, in conjunction with the bilingual education philosophy adhered to by the campus, should be used to make decisions on the amount of primary language instruction that a child receives.
Planning can help establish instruction for groups of students at similar levels, rather than having individualized instruction for each child. In ESL instruction, the commissioner's rules state that English instruction should be commensurate in time allotment with regular English instruction.
Students in bilingual education and ESL programs must be taught the same curricula as students in the regular, mainstream, program. In Texas, these curricula have been called the "Essential Elements." There are Essential Elements for each grade level, prekindergarten through grade 12.
In bilingual education programs, students learn the Essential Elements through Spanish and later transfer this knowledge to English. Bilingual teachers should be trained on how to transfer skills from one language to another. When done appropriately, the transfer of skills from Spanish to English occurs smoothly and quickly, especially in the elementary grades.
In ESL programs, instruction in the Essential Elements are delivered through specialized English methodology. ESL teachers should be trained in ESL methodology. When ESL instruction is done appropriately, students can learn the basics in the essential skills and knowledge of the content areas; these can be applied to more rigorous academic tasks as the students become ready.
7. Are bilingual teachers implementing bilingual education as it should be implemented?
Many schools will have well designed plans for the implementation of bilingual education programs. Administrators and teachers can articulate the principles of bilingual education and can talk about their commitment to all children. However, when we observe many bilingual education classrooms, we know right away that bilingual instruction is not happening and that teachers feel the pressure to exit students to English as soon as possible.
Parents should visit the classrooms and see if the teachers are giving equal value to both languages, see how often both languages are used for instruction, see how the teacher uses the children's experiences to base the instruction, and see if the teachers use both languages to assess children's knowledge.
8. Is there an urgency to exit students from the bilingual education program with no regard for their readiness to transfer to an all English program?
Texas requires that schools have a Language Proficiency Assessment Committee(LPAC) to determine and approve bilingual education offerings and exiting of students from the program. Many times these committees are faced with pressure, overtly or covertly expressed, from administrators and teachers to move students out of the program as soon as possible. Moving a student out of a bilingual education program prematurely will have adverse effects on the student's achievement. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to see the urgency to get students out of the bilingual program with no support to provide for the adjustment to the transition experience.
Parents must not allow for schools to exit students prematurely from the bilingual education program. They should inquire about the exiting policies and the expertise that LPAC committee members have in bilingual education to make these extremely important decisions. They should require that training be provided to LPAC members periodically.
9. Are bilingual teachers under tremendous pressure to produce LEP student success on the TAAS at the expense of other learning?
Many teachers who are under tremendous pressure to exit students tend to shortchange the integrity of the program by overemphasizing the use of English at the expense of academic content that will be assessed in the TAAS test. There is a general feeling and a misconception that in order to be successful with the TAAS test, students have to take it in English. If students can be successful in passing the TAAS test in Spanish, they can transfer the knowledge once they have the necessary labels to comprehend text in English.
The instruction students receive in bilingual education and ESL should teach students the Essential Elements. The Essential Elements include objectives that are tested in the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). If teachers teach the Essential Elements and, at the same time, provide intensive and appropriate instruction in English, then students are being prepared for the TAAS.
However, students who are limited in English proficiency do need more time to learn skills tested in the TAAS. Because they are involved in learning language and content simultaneously, the learning process is slower for them. It should be remembered that, because the state expects LEP students to be taught the Essential Elements, school districts must provide bilingual education and ESL instruction that is accelerated rather than remedial. Some schools across the country have developed models of accelerated bilingual education and ESL instruction.
Parents must support teachers who are clamoring for permission to do what is right in a bilingual education program. Show your support by questioning schools that have as a goal the exiting of students by a specific grade. Some students are not ready. Question schools that have a high dropout rate of students who are limited English proficient.
10. What criteria are being used by the school to ensure that children are placed in a quality instructional program, one that will cause children to achieve and excel?
The state law and rules for educating LEP students indicate that parents have the right to information and to decisionmaking, and they specify how parents need to be informed and involved. Specifically, the parent(s) of every child who qualifies for the program must receive information about the program features and benefits. Then, most importantly, the parent(s) must provide consent in writing for the student's participation in the program.
Once the child is in the program, parents must receive information on the child's assessment and progress, program placement changes, and completion of the program (exiting). Parents also, must be part of the district's Language Proficiency Assessment Committees. So, one thing parents can do is to become more familiar with Commissioner's Rules Concerning State Plan for Educating LimitedEnglishProficient Students and other information about bilingual education from the state-as well as other sources.
The 10 questions discussed in this article are among the key questions that parents may ask schools when they are not convinced that their bilingual programs are producing the results in achievement that will provide the LEP students the same opportunities to make those choices that make a difference for people. It is not an allinclusive list. Parents become a vigorous force and a catalyst for positive educational changes. It is when we exercise these roles that we show the schools and our children that we are real partners in the educational process, not mere bystanders waiting to be asked. School personnel working with parents often find it helpful to review these questions with parents of LEP students.
In Spanish there are two proverbs, in particular, that should remind us of our responsibility to the school and to our children. These proverbs are: "No hay peor lucha, que la que no se hace" [There is no worse struggle than the one that is never undertaken (Ballesteros, 1979)] and "El que poco pide, nada merece" [The person who asks for little deserves nothing (Ballesteros, 1979)].
Ballesteros, O.A. Mexican Proverbs: The Philosophy, Wisdom and Humor of a People. (Burnet, Texas: Eakin Press, 1979).
Cárdenas, J.A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy. (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
Texas Education Agency. "Chapter 89, Subchapter BB: Commissioner's Rules Concerning State Plan for Educating LimitedEnglishProficient Students." Issued under Texas Education Code Chapter 29.05129.064. (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, 1996).
Sosa, Alicia S. Questions and Answers About Bilingual Education (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1993).
Abelardo Villarreal is the division director for the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Adela Solis is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development.
Reprints of this article in English and Spanish may be obtained free of charge through the STAR Center, call 1888FYISTAR or visit our site via the Internet.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Education Service Center in your region. To locate call 5124639734, Texas Education Agency Information.
STAR Center 1888FYISTAR www.starcenter.org (The comprehensive regional assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education to serve Texas (Federal Region 8). A collaboration of IDRA, the Dana Center at UT Austin, and RMC Research.)
TENET www.tenet.edu (Texas Education Network)
Hispanic Families as Valued Partners: An Educator's Guide by M. Robledo Montecel, A. Gallagher, A. Montemayor, A. Villarreal, N. AdameReyna and J. Supik (90 Pages, 1993, $19.95).
"Keeping the Faith: Valuing Parents" by A. Montemayor (IDRA Newsletter, September 1996, free)
"Parents as First Teachers: Creating an Enriched Home Learning Environment" by A. Villarreal (IDRA Newsletter, April 1995, free)
"Parents Reclaiming Their Schools: New Initiative Brings Parents Together for Better Schools" by A. Montemayor (IDRA Newsletter, JuneJuly 1994, free)
Publications are available from IDRA, 210/6848180; fax 210/6845389; www.idra.org.
[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]