José A. Cárdenas, Ed.D.
Lack of Bilingual Teacher Training
In the late 1960s it was common practice to assign teachers to bilingual education programs with little preparation in the use of bilingual materials and methodologies. It was not unusual for the bilingual teachers to be the only staff in the school that could communicate with students and parents in the native language.
The evaluation of bilingual education conducted by the American Institute of Research (AIR), indicated that almost one-half of the teachers studied had received less than 3 days of bilingual education training over a five-year span.
Although there has been such improvement in the pre-service and in-service training of bilingual education personnel, needs assessment in bilingual education still points to teacher training as a critical need.
Lack of Administrative Support
As a new superintendent in the Edgewood school district in San Antonio in 1969, I implemented one of the earliest bilingual education programs in Texas, recruiting two teachers to initiate a bilingual program in one of the elementary schools. After the first day of school, both teachers were back in my office.
“The principal said that if the superintendent wanted to implement a bilingual education program in the district, he would go along with you and do it. But he also said, ‘If I catch either of you teachers speaking to class in a language other than English, I will see to it that both of you are fired!’”
This lack of administrative support continues today and can be measured by the resources allocated in support of bilingual programs. For years, the Texas system of school finance provided additional funding in the Foundation School Program in support of bilingual education. School districts received an additional 10% of the basic program allotment for each student in a bilingual or English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) program. However, state law did not require that these funds be expended in support of bilingual or ESL programs. When advocates of bilingual education succeeded in getting the Texas Legislature to amend the law and require that these “bilingual funds” be expended in support of bilingual programs, there was an outcry from school administrators. Superintendents stood in line to testify in Austin as to the hardship imposed by requiring that bilingual education funds be spent on educational programs for limited-English-proficient and language minority students.
Failure to Use the Vernacular
The rationale for bilingual education is based on the use of native language for continuous growth while English is being acquired as a second language. Initial efforts were constrained, and are still constrained, by the lack of a large pool of trained teachers competent in the student?s native language and a virtual void of instructional materials in languages other than English. In Texas, instead of addressing the massive pool of native language speakers and facilitating their entry into the teaching profession, the educational leadership opted for two approaches that proved counterproductive. One was to develop other language facility among English speaking teachers and the other involved the massive importation of Spanish speaking teachers from other countries.
The state education agency was assured by a professor of Romance languages, that native-like proficiency could be developed in English speaking teachers in one hundred hours of Spanish language instruction. Unfortunately, supporters of this plan grossly underestimated the amount of time necessary for the acquisition of native-like proficiency. The teachers enrolled, subsequently labeled “One Hundred Hour Wonders,” did not develop the extensive proficiency necessary to be able to present academic work in Spanish.
It is interesting that teachers who expect students to acquire in a few weeks sufficient proficiency in the English language in order to handle academic work in that language, failed to acquire similar proficiency in one hundred hours of instruction – nor even in two hundred hours of instruction when signed up for a second round in the program.
This approach was eventually dropped, but the state education agency continued to impede the preparation of bilingual teachers by the use of a culturally-biased test used as the sole criterion for entry into teacher preparation programs. As a result of poor performance on the test, large numbers of Hispanics were precluded from enrolling in teacher training programs. The agency defended this barrier in the courts until the test was replaced by another measure. It is ironic that following years of such exclusionary tactics, the state education agency subsequently identified a lack of minority teachers as one of the schools’ foremost problems.
The second approach, still in use, is to import teachers from the various parts of the Spanish-speaking world and place them as teachers in bilingual education programs. This approach presents many problems. First, many imported teachers do not have the necessary English language skills to present the English acquisition portion of the bilingual curriculum. Second, the teachers’ pronunciation and vocabulary vary from the children’s vernacular, so the students find themselves in trilingual situations, where the English language is taught, instruction is in a version of their native language that they can’t understand, and the student?’ vernacular is ignored.
This trilingual fiasco still manifests itself, not only with the continued recruitment of teachers from other parts of the world, but with the use of local teachers who insist on “purity of language” and believe that Castillian Spanish is the only correct language for use in the classroom. Since the rationale for bilingual education is continuity of cognitive growth while English is being acquired, the use of a dialect unfamiliar to the students defeats the purpose of native language use. With all due respect to the Royal Academy of Spain, the “correct” form of a language is the form that best facilitates communication.
The maintenance and improvement of the native language is a desirable, but separate, aspect of bilingual education. Such instruction can be readily justified in that the acquisition of second or “foreign” languages has been an educational objective in America since colonial days. It seems odd that we would seek to eradicate student native-like proficiency in a language, only to introduce it as a foreign language after the student has lost such proficiency.
Language incompatibilities have not been readily perceived as a problem by the schools which tend to present instruction in the English language with little regard for the consequences for non-English speaking children. After all, it took nine justices of the United States Supreme Court in the unanimous decision in Lau v. Nichols to inform the education authorities of the San Francisco Unified School District that if 1,800 children spoke Chinese and no English, and the teachers spoke English and no Chinese, the schools had an educational problem. Typically, the San Francisco district readily responded that the problem was not theirs, the problem was with the children who did not speak English. If the students wanted to benefit from school, it was their responsibility to learn the English language. It was necessary for the Supreme Court to point out that a desire to learn the English language was one basic reason for the children being sent to school.
Progress in the implementation of bilingual programs suffered an abrupt reversal due to the political and public manifestation of the xenophobic characteristic of a large number of Americans, whose distrust and fear of foreigners led to a strong, organized counter-offensive against the use of any language but English in American schools. The original attack was organized by Senator Hayakawa from California and flourished as a new form of McCarthyism with tendrils reaching all the way to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Secretary of Education.
In spite of the successes of bilingual education and the extensive assimilation of students previously in bilingual programs, xenophobic attacks continue with extensive dissemination of negative propaganda based on distortions, misconceptions and misinformation. These attacks, waged in the name of “cohesiveness of culture” and “protection of the American way of life,” are unfounded and, in essence, denigrate the important contributions immigrant groups have made to this country.
One of the most serious failures of American schools has been their inability to distinguish between the unique characteristics of atypical populations and a lack of mental capability. Much of the poor performance by minority, disadvantaged, migrant and immigrant school populations comes about by their placement in remediation programs which are low-level, slow-paced, repetitious, boring and self-fulfilling.
Lack of English language competency is commonly seen as lack of mental competency, especially so when the determinants of mental capability are developed, normed, administered, scored and interpreted solely in the English language. Though civil rights legislation requires the determination of lack of English language skills prior to placement in bilingual programs, there is a marked danger that the bilingual program is seen by the school as just another remedial or special education program for low mental capability students. Unfortunately, teachers, parents and the students themselves internalize these low levels of expectancy and convert them into continuous low levels of performance.
Rules and Regulations
The implementation of bilingual education programs has been accompanied by a host of rules and regulations governing the programs which have served to impede greater success.
Such rules and regulations become a handicap for the successful implementation of the program. Such restrictions may affect teacher characteristics, language to be used, the relationship between sources of funding and the role of the teacher and paraprofessional staff, limitations on the use of the native language, and many others.
If schools are to succeed, we must address these problems in the implementation of bilingual programs and expand the educational opportunities for a large segment of the school population, our limited-English-proficient and language minority students.
A nationally-recognized education expert, Dr. José A. Cárdenas is founder and Director Emeritus of IDRA. Dr. Cárdenas is currently working on a multi-volume compilation of his forty years of writings about public education in the United States. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of Dr. Cárdenas’ article which began in the September 1993 IDRA Newsletter. In the introduction in Part I, Dr. Cárdenas asserted that “the success of bilingual programs in this country would soar if attention were paid to problems in implementation.” Part II continues his discussion of ten current challenges to the implementation of quality bilingual education programs in public schools.
[©1993, 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.]