• by Dr. Albert Cortez • IDRA Newsletter • January 1996 • Dr. Albert Cortez

[Dr. Albert Cortez was recently honored by the Texas Association for Bilingual Education (TABE) for his outstanding work in bilingual education. In recognizing him as a 1995-96 TABE honoree at a conference luncheon in November, TABE noted his vast contributions to the field. Reflecting on this occasion, Dr. Cortez presents the following thoughts on bilingual education advocacy.]

At the TABE conference awards luncheon, I used the time available to thank the many people whom I feel have provided extensive support and guidance in the work I have done in education policy development over the past 20 years. These include my famila and the many colleagues at IDRA including José Cárdenas, Bambi Cárdenas Ramirez, Gloria Zamora, Alicia Salinas Sosa, Aurelio Montemayor, Lalo Villarreal and “Cuca” Robledo Montecel. I also used the time to acknowledge the critical role played by all educators in the lives of their students, citing research findings that the difference between students dropping out of school and staying in school can be traced to the presence of one caring adult.

Because of time constraints during the awards program, I was unable to stress a point, critical in today’s xenophobic atmosphere, that there is a need for us as bilingual education advocates to take a stand and say, “Enough,” to critics of multilingualism and diversity in this country: “Enough. We will tolerate your xenophobia no longer. We have tried English-only immersion for limited-English-proficient children before, at the cost of too many members of our older generation. We will not go back to those dreary days of yesteryear.”

As proponents of bilingual education, we must re-assert the validity of the research that has concluded it makes good educational sense to teach a student in his or her native language while, at the same time, developing that student’s English language capacity. We must reiterate the bi in bilingual education. We should continue to strive to educate those who seek credible evidence in support of our pedagogical stance.

We also face a challenge beyond explaining the reasons bilingual education makes sense pedagogically. We must transcend the academic settings to begin a dialog with our critics and to dispel the fears and misconceptions that serve as the bases for many others who are against our programs. Hard is it may be, for some, we must sit and converse with nonbelievers and skeptics. We should listen to their concerns. And we must go beyond listening to explore with them the bases of their opposition and fears related to providing instruction to students in their native language. Is their opposition to native language instruction based on a notion that we should all speak single language? Are they uncomfortable with the idea that some people in this country are able to converse in languages that they themselves do not comprehend? Is their opposition to bilingual education based on some misguided suspicion that bilingual people will some day organize and form a separatist movement in this country? Is there something that bilingual advocates could say or do to ally those fears or correct those misconceptions? Through dialog, we may begin to identify the cause for their concerns, and, with that growth in understanding, there may be hope of resolution.

We at IDRA are initiating such dialogs by participating in discussions that include audiences such as Chamber of Commerce representatives, media staff and other non-educators. An example of this occurred recently when I attended a meeting involving business persons and representatives from a more conservative end of the education policy spectrum. In the meeting, critics of bilingual education expressed their concerns about when, or if, certain children would learn English. I used the opportunity to point out that bilingual programs incorporate English language development as a critical part of the instructional process. After then listening to their concerns about when students would transition out of bilingual education into the all-English curriculum, I acknowledged that this transition is recognized as an end in most bilingual programs. I did caution, however, that there is no “magical” number of years for this transition because children come into the program with varied levels of English proficiency. I also noted that research on differing practices for exiting a bilingual education program indicate that students who spend longer amounts of time in the program (late exiting pupils) tend to be more successful over the course of their academic careers. Students who exit after only a short, limited time in a bilingual program tend not to be as successful in their subsequent school years. Engaging in conversation does not guarantee that those who question the efficiency of bilingual programs will be convinced, it does ensure that they take whatever stance they will on an informed basis. We should seek opportunities to create more dialogs and be prepared to address the array of issues that those conversations may unleash.

If we converse, however, and are unable to resolve our differences, then we as advocates for children who are limited-English-proficient must be prepared to take a stand. That stand is based on what we know: that the use of a students’ native language is more effective than English language immersion approaches. We must then champion our stance in all areas where instructional policies are crafted, including the national, state and local levels. We must be advocates by participating in local campus-based decision making councils. We must monitor and provide input into state board of education and legislative arenas.

At IDRA, in my many dealings with policymakers, I have learned that policy is nothing more than what some people think is the right thing to do in specific circumstances. Over the years, we at IDRA have stood for a number of critical issues, taking on those who would perpetuate unequal school funding systems, those who would deny access to a basic education to immigrant pupils, those who would deny the existence of school dropouts and those who would refuse to adapt instruction to address the language-related needs of students attending public schools. We have taken stances in all of these issues because we believe they are critical in ensuring access to equal opportunities for all children. We approach our advocacy from a foundation that puts first what is right for children.

There are some people involved in the public policy arena today who are myopic and focused on what they are against. It is time for those who stand for issues to speak out and make their voices heard. I will continue to stand for good programs for language-minority pupils. As an advocate, I will continue to stand for the use of bilingual instructional strategies for children who are in the process of developing English proficiency. I will take this stance because I believe that it is the right thing to do for children.

I encourage my colleagues to continue to educate others about the purposes and strengths of bilingual instructional approaches, to dialog with those who are not bilingual education proponents and, most importantly, to stand for high quality programs that ensure access to equity and excellence for all children.

Dr. Cortez is the division director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. He is also acting director of the Division of Professional Development, serves as director of the IDRA Immigrant Education Project and the Multifunctional Regional Service Center (9) and serves as one of three site directors for the STAR Center, IDRA’s comprehensive regional assistance center. Dr. Cortez has been involved in policy development and reform in the areas of bilingual education, immigrant education, school finance reform, dropout prevention and school governance. He has served as an expert resource to state agencies, members of the Texas legislature and national committees. Dr. Cortez has worked with IDRA since 1975 where he has served as an education specialist, evaluator, project and division director. Congratulations and thank you, Dr. Cortez!

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[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1996 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.]