• by Oanh H. Maroney • IDRA Newsletter • January 1998 • 

Fair and equitable education involves being taught by individuals who are properly trained and certified to teach them. But the number of certified bilingual education teachers is not adequate for the number of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students enrolled in U.S. schools. Also, the percentage of minority teachers does not reflect the percentage of minority students enrolled in the nation’s public schools. Minority teachers comprised 13 percent of teachers, and minority students comprised 32 percent in 1993-94 (Henke, 1996).

Student Population

According to 1990 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Council of Chief State School Officers, nearly one-third of all children under 18 are from ethnic or racial minority groups. About 7.6 million students belong to culturally distinct groups that may speak a dialectical variant of standard English. An additional 5.8 million students come from homes in which the primary language is not English (McLeod, 1994).

Texas and California each have more than 1 million LEP students. While immigration contributes to the number of LEP children in public schools, only 6 percent of the students in the United States are immigrants; three-quarters of all LEP students under the age of 15 were born in the United States (McLeod, 1994).

There were 46.6 million students enrolled in school in the United States in 1993-94 (Henke, 1996). Of this number, about 89 percent (41.6 million) were enrolled in public schools. Minority students accounted for 32 percent of elementary and secondary school students; African American students comprised 16 percent, Hispanic students comprised 12 percent, Asian and Pacific Islander students comprised 3 percent, and Native American students comprised 1 percent. Students with limited English proficiency comprised 5 percent (2.1 million) of the public school population (Henke, 1996). Statistics show that minority students and those from low-income families are considered more at risk of poor school outcomes, yet they are becoming an increasing share of the population (NCES, 1997).

By 2005, the school-age population of White students will likely have declined by 3 percent, while an increase will be experienced by African American students (8 percent), Hispanic students (30 percent), Asian and Pacific Islander students (39 percent) and Native American students (6 percent) (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1997).

Bilingual Education and LEP Students

Almost 30 years ago, Texas senator, Ralph Yarborough, and others saw the need for action to be taken to ensure equitable opportunity and educational success of LEP students in public schools, particularly in the Southwest. As a result, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was enacted through which Congress provided supplemental funding to school districts in order to establish programs for low-income students with limited English proficiency.

Later, the Bilingual Education Act of 1974 removed the stipulation that the children served must come from low-income families. It more explicitly defined bilingual education as instruction in English and the child’s native language to the extent necessary for the child to make effective progress.

The logic behind bilingual education is to develop literacy in the child’s primary language, building knowledge upon the foundation that the child brings to school. Those skills and competencies may then be more contextually applied to the child’s acquisition of the English language.

Bilingual education involves more than simply translating words from one language to another or giving students a “sink or swim” course in the English language. IDRA has stated before:

A good bilingual education program…enhances the learning of English and subject matter. Bilingual education teaches English to children and gives them a chance to practice it while they also learn subjects like math and science (IDRA, 1996).

The purpose of bilingual education is to promote literacy and success in school for students whose first language is not English. The practicality of good bilingual education programs is that they encourage schools to adjust to the student – that his or her primary language and cultural knowledge are incorporated into content instruction – rather than forcing the student to adjust to the demands of a standardized curriculum.

Kenneth Johnson elaborates:

The curriculum assumes that every child who enters school has a middle-class orientation and a middle-class background of experiences. Since the culturally [different learner] has neither, the standard curriculum operates against him from the first day he enters school. To make matters worse, many classroom teachers often demand that the culturally [different learner] adhere to the expectations of the curriculum. If the child doesn’t, he is made to feel that something is wrong with him. The problem is: change the child, or change the curriculum (1970).

Bilingual education has long been debated in some circles. Much of the debate stems from a lack of understanding of the purpose and methodology of bilingual education. Despite the fact that bilingual education programs are offered in numerous schools across the country, they have not been given the proper attention necessary to be effective. As a result, LEP students are more likely to drop out of school than are their counterparts whose first language is English. They drop out not because English is not their first language but because LEP students are not being served appropriately by schools.

Too many LEP students are not given enough grounding in their primary language to succeed in an all-English environment. Left unarmed with basic knowledge and skills in their first language and inept in English, many of these students find themselves alienated in public schools.

Statistics show that of the 9.5 million 15- through 24-year-olds enrolled in school in 1994, 500,000 left without successfully completing high school (McMillen, 1997). While African American and Hispanic students drop out of school at higher rates than do their White counterparts, Hispanic students have the highest dropout rate among all ethnic groups (30 percent).

Only about one-quarter of Hispanic LEP youths received some ESL instruction in school, but 57 percent of these youths dropped out. And, 72 percent of Hispanic LEP youths who received no ESL instruction dropped out (NCES, 1997).

For many youths, success in school can be facilitated by improving their access to quality bilingual education programs. However, bilingual education programs face numerous challenges that impede their progress and effectiveness. Aside from the various myths and misunderstandings that exist about bilingual education, the challenge that most affects the survival of bilingual education and the children who benefit from it is the corps – or lack thereof – of certified, well-trained bilingual education teachers.

Shortage of Qualified Teachers

As noted previously, there is not a proportionate representation of minority and bilingual education teachers when compared to those student populations in U.S. schools. One factor that contributes to this is the number of college degrees conferred upon minorities.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population count in 1994 was 260,372,000. Minorities comprised 26.1 percent of the population (1997). Of a total 1,165,973 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1994, only 17 percent were granted to minorities, and 13 percent of master’s degrees were awarded to minorities. In the field of education, minorities earned only 10.7 percent of the total number of bachelor’s degrees and 13.1 percent of the total number of master’s degrees awarded (Carter and Wilson, 1997).

White students earned college degrees at a rate that is somewhat consistent with their proportion of the population. They comprised 74 percent of the population in 1994 and received 80 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 75 percent of the master’s degrees during that year. However, the percentage of bachelor’s and master’s degrees earned in 1994 falls well below each ethnic group’s proportion of the population among all minority groups, except for Asian and Pacific Islander students.

Furthermore, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), fewer public schools offer bilingual education programs. This decline has taken place over a period of seven years from 1987 to 1994: 20.0 percent in 1987-88, 18.8 percent in 1990-91, 17.8 percent in 1993-94 (Henke, 1996).

However, as the number of bilingual education programs has been decreasing over the years, the number of students qualified for these programs has continued to increase. In 1994, 39 percent of all teachers had LEP students in their classes, yet only 28 percent of the teachers with LEP students received any training for teaching LEP students (Henke, 1997). For the 2.1 million LEP students in classrooms across the nation, the majority received daily instruction from an individual who had not been properly trained or certified to teach them.

In Texas in 1995-96, minorities comprised 54 percent of the student population. Hispanic students accounted for 37 percent of the total number of students. Of the 70,064 student increase from 1993-94 to 1995-96, 71 percent of students were Hispanic (TEA, 1997).

Of the 3.7 million students enrolled in Texas public schools, only 11 percent were enrolled in bilingual education or ESL programs (TEA, 1997).

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) reports that in the same year, 240,371 teachers comprised 52 percent of the total staff count. Approximately 23.9 percent of these teachers were minorities: 8 percent were African American, 15 percent were Hispanic, 76 percent were White, and 1 percent were classified as “other.” There were 16,826 teachers assigned to 411,429 students enrolled in bilingual and ESL programs across the state in 1995-96 (TEA, 1997). While this is equivalent to about a 24-to-1 student-teacher ratio, these numbers are problematic because the distribution of teachers is not consistent with the distribution of students enrolled in bilingual and ESL programs.

IDRA senior research associate, Roy Johnson, gives an example of the demand for bilingual education teachers in Texas:

1,200 new bilingual certified or endorsed teachers will be needed per year over the next few years to staff the state’s bilingual education classes. Over the last five years, a total of 2,177 bilingual endorsements have been issued (1993).

This reflects an average increase of only 435 per year, about one-third of what is needed.

Moving Toward Equity for All Students

Despite the legislation that exists to provide public school students with equitable educational opportunities, that ideal has yet to be realized for low-income, minority and language-minority students. While some monies are allocated to fund educational services for these students, success has not yet been achieved for two primary reasons.

The first reason is that the money designated to educate special population students is not adequate. Millions of students enrolled in public schools are considered to be at risk because of their parents’ socio-economic status or their limited English ability.

The second reason is that these monies alone cannot solve the inequities that exist. Of course, improving the learning environment and providing students with the necessary resources to learn (e.g., textbooks, adequate facilities) is a necessary and positive thing. However, even in a perfectly furnished classroom, students cannot learn effectively unless they are provided with an individual who is knowledgeable in the curriculum and properly trained to teach LEP students. Along with the need for more bilingual education programs in the country’s public schools, the quality of existing programs needs very much to be improved.

We are experiencing a steadily growing population of minority students in public schools. This poses a challenge. We must seriously consider how we can appropriately educate the soon-to-be majority population of minority students. We must consider the factors that facilitate successful school participation for all students. We must consider better ways to provide all students with the necessary resources and tools for learning. We must demand that every student be placed in a healthy learning environment where he or she receives instruction from an individual who is trained.

Equity is merely a concept. It requires desire, will power, commitment and hard work to be realized. We have talked about equity in educational opportunity for far too long. Until we, as a nation, decide that we really want to achieve equity for all children, we will continue to neglect millions of students who enter public schools each year.


Annie E. Casey Foundation. “1997 Kids Count: USA Profile,” Internet posting (Baltimore, Maryland: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1997).

Carter, D.J. and R. Wilson. Minorities in Higher Education: 1996-97 Fifteenth Annual Status Report (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, April 1997).

Henke, R.R., and S.P. Choy, X. Chen, S. Geis, M.N. Alt and S.P. Broughman. America’s Teachers: Profile of A Profession, 1993-94 (Washington, D.C.: NCES, U.S. Department of Education, 1997) NCES 97-460.

Henke, R.R., and S.P. Choy, S. Geis and S.P. Broughman. Schools and Staffing in the United States: A Statistical Profile, 1993-94 (Washington, D.C.: NCES, U.S. Department of Education, 1996) NCES 96-124.

Intercultural Development Research Association. “America needs bilingual education to produce educated, well informed citizens,” Class Notes (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1996) Issue number 1.

Johnson, K.R. Teaching the Culturally Disadvantaged: A Rational Approach (Palo Alto, Calif.: SRA, 1970).

Johnson, R.L. “Recruiting and Retaining Bilingual and ESL Teachers: An Educational Imperative in Texas,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1993).

McLeod, B. (Ed.) Language and Learning: Educating Linguistically Diverse Students (New York, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1994).

McMillen, M.M. and P. Kaufman and S. Klein. Dropout Rates in the United States: 1995 (Washington, D.C.: NCES, U.S. Department of Education, 1997) NCES 97-473.

National Center for Education Statistics. The Social Context of Education: Findings from the Condition of Education 1997 (Washington, D.C.: NCES, U.S. Department of Education, 1997) NCES 97-981.

Texas Education Agency. Snapshot ’96: 1995-96 School District Profiles (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, 1997).

Oanh Maroney is an IDRA research and executive assistant. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 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.]