• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 1998 • Dr. Albert Cortez

In a recent Associated Press (AP) article, reporters summarized the results of a newspaper poll conducted by the Houston Chronicle on public opinion of bilingual education in Texas. The headline read, “In poll, most Texans favor limited or no bilingual ed.” A review of the data presented, however, leads one to question the accuracy of that headline’s conclusion.

The newspaper article did not print the specific wording of the questions used, an important omission since the phrasing is known to significantly affect people’s responses. However, the report suggests that Texans seem split on the value of providing native language instruction for pupils while developing their proficiency in English.

According to the AP report, 48 percent of 801 Texans polled (randomly, one assumes) indicated that they opposed “long-term” bilingual education; however, 44 percent held the view that native language support should be provided as long as such assistance is needed.

The headline, then, is an interpretation. Furthermore, it is an overstatement of the poll results and representative of the biased interpretations of data that have recently characterized the public debate on appropriate ways of educating students identified as having limited proficiency in English.

A closer look at the poll results indicates that, in truth, only 25 percent of the individuals polled believed that limited-English-proficient (LEP) students should receive no bilingual instruction before being placed in English-only programs (i.e., only one in four Texans expressed outright opposition to providing native language support while a student learns English).

On the other hand, 27 percent believed in providing at least one year of native language instruction to facilitate a student’s transition into the all-English curriculum. And 38 percent of the Texans polled actually believed in the efficacy of providing three or more years of bilingual instruction while LEP students developed greater English fluency.

One could say from these numbers that (if one assumes no overlap in the two respondent groups), 65 percent of Texans indeed supported the use of native language instruction for LEP students (acknowledging that opinions differed concerning the number of years that might be provided).

As this alternative interpretation illustrates, one’s reporting of poll “results” can be affected by one’s stance on the issues. The poll also reflects that, contrary to popular perceptions, some Texans (like many others around the country) are unsure of their position on how to best educate LEP pupils, with 10 percent reported as undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Critics of bilingual education may jump to the conclusion that there is major opposition in Texas to providing native language instruction to students developing English proficiency. A look at the data, however, reveals that while there may be a split in the opinions polled, a significant number of Texans are supportive of providing appropriate bilingual education instruction for as long as the student can benefit from such a program.

Clearly 38 percent of Texans polled staked out a position indicating that they favored three or more years of bilingual instruction for LEP pupils – contrasted with the 27 percent who indicated they were strongly opposed to the program. In contrast to the reactionary populations in California, Texans seemed much more cautious in their stance on the best ways for providing appropriate instruction to children while they are learning English.

The fact that only one in four respondents would immerse Texas’ LEP pupils in “sink or swim” approaches, or that only one in four would limit participation to one year before subjecting children to such high stakes treatment (which research has shown to be dysfunctional and ineffective), can be viewed as encouraging. Any public official aspiring to hold statewide office will want to note that a position on this issue could help to garner support, yet it might alienate a larger number of potential supporters – a no-win position for most elected officials.

A much larger issue emerges as we engage in increasingly bitter debates on the future of educational policy in this country. An important omission in the reporting is the lack of detail on how the questions were framed, who supported or opposed the program, and where the support for or opposition to the program originated. I would venture to suggest that the majority of those favoring the use of bilingual approaches were individuals, friends, or relatives and co-workers of families whose children were directly affected, while the majority of the opposition came from those who held opinions on the issue but had no perceived direct personal stake involved in the outcomes.

Perhaps we should weigh the impact of such polls against the views of people who are directly affected by the proposed reforms (the children and families of those involved). We should give greater voice to those whose lives may be most directly altered. Precedence for parent preferences on programs to be provided by schools to pupils with unique needs has been historically recognized in some programs. It has even been required in some legislation. For example, there is the persons-with-disabilities legislation dating back to the 1960s that has been incorporated in most state programs serving LEP pupils.

Regardless of who opposes and who supports certain educational approaches, it is time for all of us to question the validity of developing education policy on the basis of public opinion polls. Let research evidence and the views of the families directly affected help guide the making of life-altering decisions involving our children.

History has shown us that education strategies that call for immersing children into the curriculum when they do not know the dominant language (without allowing an opportunity to ease this transition by providing some years of native language instructional support) fail for the great majority of students. Extraordinarily high dropout rates and unacceptably low levels of performance are guaranteed with English-immersion programs for LEP pupils. On the other hand, research by many respected educators (among them, Cummins, Collier and Garcia) has long demonstrated that providing multi-year effective bilingual education programs produces better academic results for LEP pupils throughout the duration of their schooling.

Failure for any child in this country is unacceptable – and adoption of public education policies that will exacerbate rather than improve schooling outcomes for LEP pupils is similarly unacceptable. It is time for critics of bilingual education to offer a more effective strategy for educating LEP pupils (something other than the failed immersion policies of bygone eras) or to work with advocates on the process of improving instruction for all students. LEP children deserve better than serving as the pawns of or lightning rods for misguided or mean-spirited opinions of adults. These adults, after voicing their opinions, can go on their way, seemingly untouched by the impact of their opinions. In contrast, millions of LEP students suffer at the hands of those opinions.

The rest of the civilized world must smile as U.S. citizens engage in this contentious debate over language instruction, while Europeans and others maintain their long-standing support for learning multiple languages. Will we succumb to small minds and insecure thoughts? Perhaps the feisty national mood is reflective of a seemingly endless economic stability and the absence of major threats from abroad – a combination that fuels an arrogance that does not serve our nation well. For, as the wealthy accumulate a disproportionate share of the nation’s resources and many others sit comfortably in their gated communities, we must never forget the millions upon millions of citizens, many of them children and youth, who do not partake of this great bounty. For most of these young people, a high quality and appropriate educational program is the difference between a life of wanting and a place at the table that celebrates the American Dream. Such life-altering decisions must be handled carefully, and those professionals who best know the issues should be given a major role in deciding the course of action.

Certainly, individuals would not want public opinion to be used to guide doctors in deciding a course of treatment for a relative or friend. Similarly, public opinion should not be used to frame appropriate instruction for any student. If such strategies had been used to guide US efforts to segregate its schools, we would still be mired in misguided debates over separate and equal schooling. If we had been guided by public opinion, our schools might still be omitting any discussion of the theory of evolution (as many continue to insist on such an omission even to this day).

Let us sit and reason together and work to ensure that all children can be successful in our great country. Where there is data that can lead to the improvement of instruction for LEP pupils, let us improve the programs serving these students. Where we have evidence that supports the ineffectiveness of many old alternatives that some uninformed or ill-intentioned groups espouse, we should refrain from implementing them. As Dr. José A. Cárdenas would continuously caution, whatever is done in the name of educational innovation should at a minimum be guaranteed to cause no harm to students. We owe that assurance to ourselves, but most of all we owe it to all children, including those who are in the process of learning.

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and leadership. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]