José A. Cárdenas, Ed.D.

Editor’s Note: In October, Dr. José A. Cárdenas presented closing remarks to participants at the 25th annual conference of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education. Below is an adaptation of the text of his presentation.

I am honored to have been selected to present closing remarks at the session of this 25th annual conference of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education (TABE).

The honor is much more appreciated when considering that this year is my last in 48 years as a professional educator. Of these 48 years, 18 years were spent prior to the serious consideration of bilingual instruction as a methodology appropriate for limited-English-proficient (LEP) children and 30 years since the advent of bilingual programs.

I was an early advocate of bilingual education, with my first involvement occurring at the 1966 Tucson conference. I participated in the writing of the federal Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and in the writing of all state bilingual education legislation in Texas.

I take pride in having provided the advocacy and financial support for the organization of both TABE and the National Association for Bilingual Education. For these efforts, I have been honored several times by each of the two associations.

The closing of this conference coincides with the closing of my professional life. It is impossible to retire as a professional educator without reviewing the history and status of this segment of education that has been such a dominant part of my life for 30 years.

Many years ago, someone facetiously described five phases of innovation. Each innovative idea goes through the five periods of enthusiasm, disillusion, panic, rewarding the non-participant and punishing the innocent. I wish it were not so, but bilingual education as an innovative concept has not been exempt from these five phases.

In the 1960s, the education community greeted bilingual education with great enthusiasm. The early enthusiasm was followed by disillusionment over the institutionalizing of the concept. The concern developed into panic at the thought that an educational methodology had emerged that required specialists with special understandings, training and skills in addressing the needs of a special school population.

Non-participation was rewarded as the entire nation developed a xenophobic opposition to bilingual education in favor of the traditional methodology. And finally, the innocents were punished through increased harassment of bilingual programs and bilingual personnel.

On this 25th anniversary of the TABE, we face the beginning of a recycling of the five phases. We are again seeing the initial enthusiasm for bilingual education as if it were an innovative approach to the teaching of LEP children.

At the same time, opposition to bilingual education continues because of the availability and acceptability of five myths that continue to undermine this methodology. In order to prevent the cycle from repeating itself, it is necessary to acknowledge and attack these myths.

The first myth is the assumption that LEP children were being taught adequately before the implementation of bilingual programs. Opponents of bilingual education yearn for a return to the days of yesteryear, the “good ‘ole days,” when problems in the education of LEP children did not exist and everyone was happy. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. Early supporters of bilingual education grasped at the innovation – any innovation – when looking at the deplorable conditions in the education of minority and LEP children. The problems included institutionalized failure, repetition of grades, lack of achievement and overagedness in grade. Dropout rates for LEP children ranged from 80 percent in the better performing schools to 100 percent in the worst.

Unfortunately, there was little accountability and the failure of minority and LEP children was not considered worth recording. But those of us who were around during those days have painful memories of the “good ‘ole days” before bilingual education and the massive failure of the educational system.

The second myth about bilingual education is that it is an expensive methodology that the schools cannot afford. The truth is that the cost of bilingual education is trivial compared to the cost of the failure to provide an adequate education to a large segment of the school community.

It should be sufficient to note that holding back children for one year while they acquire some English language competence in the traditional approach costs 10 times what it costs to implement a bilingual education program, and LEP children not in bilingual programs are commonly retained two or three times.

A third consistent myth is that bilingual programs teach the native language to the exclusion of English. In response to this myth, I offer the same challenge I offered William Bennett when he was Secretary of Education: “I dare you to show me one classroom in any public school in the country where instruction in the English language is not a dominant part of bilingual education.” Secretary Bennett chose not to accept my challenge; none of the critics will accept it today.

I deem it essential that supporters of bilingual programs consistently deny that the programs are not a substitute for the learning of English and instead describe bilingual education as a better way of teaching English.

The fourth myth is that bilingual programs focus on the culture associated with the native language. In response, I only need to say two words and you can make your own inferences: “I wish.”

Even if this were so, I would not have a problem with this type of instruction. Most of the school curriculum relates to the dominant culture. Expending a limited amount of time on the ethnic culture is not undesirable. Critics of bilingual education would have us believe that an understanding and appreciation of the native culture detracts from loyalty to the dominant culture. This is not so. In my book, My Spanish-Speaking Left Foot, I state that “multiculturalism is, like love, infinite. The love we give to a first child is not diminished when the second child is born” (see My Spanish Speaking Left Foot).

The fifth myth is that bilingual education has not been successful during the past 30 years of implementation. The truth is that it has been very successful in spite of unjustified opposition, a lack of administrative support, inadequacies of materials, a shortage of teacher preparation and inadequate resources. The evidence is in, although many choose to ignore it. Children in bilingual education programs learn English faster and better than do children in traditional programs, and they accomplish this without academic retardation or retention in grade.

After 48 years of working in the teaching profession and serving as a very active advocate for improved educational opportunities for minority and LEP children, I can evaluate the outcomes of bilingual education as an educational methodology and conclude: It was a good idea then, it is a good idea today. It has worked, it is working, and it will continue to work. I trust that the time will come in the near future when psychologically debilitated xenophobes will find something else to fault, and the state and the nation will provide adequate support and resources for this educationally sound and experientially successful educational methodology.

José A. Cárdenas is the director emeritus and founder of IDRA. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, 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.]

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