Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960-2001

Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960-2001

by Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574414158
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Publication date: 03/15/2004
Series: Al Filo, Mexican American Studies Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 823 KB

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Contested Policy

The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States 1960â"2001

By Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2004 Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-415-8



Bilingual education is not a new phenomenon. It has existed in various forms since this nation's founding. The use of non-English languages as well as the use of two or more languages to teach academic subjects to individuals in the elementary, secondary, or post-secondary grades has been supported, tolerated, or sanctioned by public and parochial school officials since the 1600s. For the most part, local or state officials made these language decisions. The federal government rarely legislated language choice, although it discouraged the use of non-English languages in American life, especially in the territories and among certain immigrant and racial minority groups. The tradition of refraining from taking official action related to language policies in general or school language policies in particular ended in 1968. In this year, the U.S. Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act. Why and how this occurred is the emphasis of this chapter.

Professional educators and language specialists initiated the contemporary push for federal bilingual education policy in the early part of the decade, but newly enfranchised Chicano/a activists, civil rights groups, and educational activists soon joined them. Although activist educators, language specialists, ethnic minorities, and others were crucial in the origins of bilingual education policy, several significant contextual factors influenced their ideas and approaches. Among the most important of these during the first half of the 1960s were bilingual research findings, the civil rights movement, federal social legislation and the emerging Chicano and Chicana Movement. These contextual forces brought to light questions about national identity, the federal role in school change, power, and pedagogy, and eventually contributed to the enactment of the federal Bilingual Education Act of 1968.


Research on bilingualism—i.e., on the impact and extent of "non-English languages" in American society—began to influence many of the arguments that advocates would use to support bilingual education policy. This new research questioned two prominent myths in education: the myth of the negative impact of bilingualism on intelligence and on academic achievement and the myth of the declining significance of ethnicity in American life as implied by the melting pot theory of assimilation.

Research on Bilingualism

Since the 1920s, research on intelligence and achievement had indicated that bilingualism was an obstacle to success. This research showed a negative relationship between dual language capabilities and intelligence. However, in the early 1960s a gradual shift occurred in this literature. Scholars found that bilingualism was an asset to learning in the schools and that it played a positive role in intelligence. More specifically, they found that bilingual children were either equal to or superior to monolinguals on intelligence tests and in other areas of language usage.

Bilingual research studies also questioned the myth of underachievement based on language barriers. These new studies indicated that, in conjunction with other reforms, "non-English" or native language instruction could improve school achievement in general, rather than retard it. These studies also indicated that bilingualism could improve second language acquisition in particular. One such study, for example, found that Spanish-speaking children instructed bilingually tended to perform as well in English language skills and in the content areas as comparable students taught only in English. At the same time, these children were developing language skills in Spanish. Anglo students in bilingual programs were not adversely affected in their English language development and in the content subjects, and were learning a second language, Spanish.

This new research likewise raised questions about assimilation. Traditional theory had argued that ethnicity in general and ethnic minority languages and cultures in particular would disappear over time as a result of ethnic group assimilation into American life. Research on bilingualism, however, indicated that certain minority groups in the United States maintained their language abilities and cultural identity over time. Bilingualism and biculturalism, in other words, were not disappearing but being maintained and, in some cases, increasing. Much of this bilingualism was due to the language maintenance among the French-speaking groups in the Northeast and the Spanish-speaking population in the Southwest.

This new bilingual research reinforced the work of scholars such as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan. These two noted scholars of the immigrant experience based their research on ethnic and immigrant groups in New York City and argued that people maintained their cultural identities and felt close affiliation to those of the same group. According to them, cultural and linguistic pluralism was a much more common phenomenon than previously assumed. More specifically, ethnic and language minority groups were not melting and ethnicity was not declining as rapidly as many scholars had believed. The melting pot, in other words, was a myth.

Civil Rights Movement

Domestic concerns, especially the growth of the civil rights movements and the passage of the War on Poverty legislation in the early 1960s, focused increased attention on the problems experienced by people of color living in poverty and the role that the federal government could play in resolving these issues.

The growing strength of the black civil rights movement, that is, the struggle for voting rights, equal employment, and an end to segregation in public facilities, as well as the enactment of civil rights policies, focused attention on the presence of racial discrimination in American life. The civil rights movement also suggested new means for eliminating discriminatory policies and practices, including the use of protest, demonstrations, pickets, and increased federal involvement.

Language scholars and ethnic minority activists strongly supported the civil rights movement. They, however, began to argue that discrimination was not simply based on race but on other factors such as national origin, religion, and gender. In the case of Spanish-speaking children and with respect to bilingual education arguments, civil rights leaders and educators began to emphasize the impact and significance of discrimination based on language and culture. This type of discrimination, many activists and scholars argued, negatively impacted the school achievement of Mexican Americans in particular and language minority children in general.

These activists also began to argue that the federal government had a responsibility for overcoming all forms of discrimination. Like racial discrimination, many of them noted, inequitable treatment on the basis of language and culture could be eliminated in the schools with the support of the federal government.

Social Legislation

The enactment of poverty legislation also influenced the arguments for bilingual education. This type of legislation led to a renewed consideration of poverty and educational underachievement especially among language minority groups in general and Spanish speaking minority children in particular. It also encouraged individuals to look for a stronger federal role in eliminating poverty.

The federal government discovered poverty in the early 1960s and declared war on it. Education became instrumental in winning this war on poverty. With respect to public education, Congress enacted two major pieces of legislation aimed at developing social and educational programs to meet this federal goal: the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The former, among other things, required the involvement of poor parents in the development and implementation of federal programs. The latter provided funds to public schools and led to a renewed emphasis on eliminating poverty in the ghettos and barrios through education.

The War on Poverty legislation and increased federal involvement in education encouraged scholars to focus on the factors impacting school performance among poor children of color residing in ghettos, barrios, and reservations. Those interested in the education of Latino children emphasized the impact that structural exclusion of the community and discriminatory school policies such as no-Spanish speaking rules and English-only laws had on the underachievement of poor Spanish-speaking children. Structural exclusion and institutional discrimination, they argued, led to the lowering of self-esteem and eventual school failure of language minority students.

Other activists, especially language specialists, argued that English-only laws and practices led to the waste of necessary national language resources that could benefit the country.

The ultimate result of these debates was to shift the blame for under- achievement from minority children and their language and culture to larger institutional and structural forces, especially discriminatory school policies.

Activists and Cultural Pluralism

Finally, the emerging Chicano and Chicana movement became an important ingredient in the rationale for bilingual education. The activists of the 1960s, among other things, were ideologically opposed to assimilation, cultural repression, and Anglo hegemony in the public schools. They strongly opposed assimilation and viewed themselves as being culturally victimized and structurally excluded by the dominant society and its institutions, including the schools. They also viewed themselves as being controlled by an Anglo political and economic elite not interested in their academic or societal progress. For most activists of this period, political empowerment and cultural identity were necessary for minority academic and socioeconomic progress.

The activists of the 1960s and early 1970s, in conjunction with others, challenged the cultural and political hegemony of the dominant groups and promoted significant educational reforms, including bilingual education. They supported bilingual education for at least four reasons. First, they viewed this program as a strategy for the structural inclusion of those elements that had been historically excluded from the schools in the past: the Spanish language, Mexican culture, and the Mexican origin community. Second, many activists viewed bilingual education as "a vehicle for institutional change." Although a few of them initially were suspicious of bilingual education, most came to believe that the enactment of bilingual language policies could lead to the elimination of discriminatory school policies and practices and to significant changes in assimilationist curricular policies and inappropriate teaching strategies. This particular view of bilingual education was best summarized by Manuel Ramirez III when he said,

We must view bilingual programs not only as providing opportunities for introducing the Spanish language, Mexican history, and Mexican American history into the system, but as vehicles for restructuring that system to insure the academic survival of Chicano children and the political and economic strength of the Chicano community.

Fourth, many activists saw this reform as a means to deal more effectively with cultural assimilation. Initially, supporters looked at this program as a way to help minority children adjust to the Anglo culture of the school. But over the years, bilingual education was viewed as a means for preserving the Spanish language and Mexican culture of the Chicano and Chicana community. Bilingual education, noted Atilano A. Valencia, the director of Related Programs for Chicanos at the Southwestern Cooperative Educational Laboratory in Albuquerque, was "a quest for bilingual survival."

These activists and countless others led the community's struggle against assimilationism and for both pluralism and academic success in the schools. By the end of the decade this effort was concentrated in the struggle for bilingual education in the United States.

Impact of Context on Bilingual Education Proponents

These new social concerns coupled with research on bilingualism had significant implications for society in general and for the education of ethnic Mexican children in particular. They focused increased attention on the extent and effect of school discrimination on the ethnic identity and academic progress of poor Mexican-origin children.

With respect to the social implications, these studies added new dimensions to domestic issues of civil rights and poverty. More specifically, they extended the definition of discrimination to include language and culture. They also reinforced the notion that poverty had a linguistic dimension. These new studies likewise led to new attitudes towards bilingualism and bilinguals. Non-English languages came to be viewed in a positive light and as a precious resource that should be conserved. Bilinguals also came to be viewed more positively during these years. Finally, these studies seriously questioned the reality of the melting pot theory and provided support for cultural pluralism in American life.

These contextual forces also had educational implications. They led to a reassessment of specific educational practices that had detrimental impact on the ethnic identity and academic performance of poor Spanish speaking children. Among these practices were English-only laws, no-Spanish rules, and the structural exclusion of Mexican Americans from public education. Finally, they led to the promotion of language and culture-based school reforms such as the hiring of Spanish-speaking teachers, the incorporation of "non-English" languages and minority cultures into public education, and the repeal of English-only and no-Spanish speaking policies.

The early proponents of bilingual education took these novel ideas surrounding poverty and discrimination and applied them to the historic problems confronting schools with large numbers of Mexican children in the Southwest. In general they focused on explaining the historic pattern of underachievement experienced by Mexican-origin children and argued that they had negative school experiences, excessively high dropout rates, and low educational attainments because of poverty, negative attitudes towards Mexican-origin children and discriminatory school actions such as structural exclusion, school discrimination, cultural suppression, and inappropriate English-only instruction. Bilingualism, they added, would help reverse these historical patterns by replacing exclusionary, discriminatory and English-only school policies with native language instruction, a culturally appropriate curriculum, inclusive hiring practices, and strong parental involvement. Structural inclusion of community, language, and culture, in other words, would lead to increased school success among language minority children. It also would lead to minority political empowerment and to the replacement of assimilation ideals in this country with pluralism.


The official push for bilingual education began with the publication of an important report issued by the National Education Association in 1966. This report publicized the negative impact of the schools on Mexican-American cultural identity and on their school performance. It documented many of the discriminatory educational policies affecting these children and argued that they contributed to low school performance and to alienation from the larger society. Traditional school policies and practices such as rigid "Anglicization" practices, English-only policies, no-Spanish speaking rules, and cultural degradation, the report argued, led to "damaged" self-esteem, resentment, psychological withdrawal from school and underachievement.

This report not only documented the major problems confronting educators, it also proposed bilingualism as a solution for improving the education of Mexican-American children. Bilingualism, it argued, could help overcome decades of cultural degradation caused by rigid assimilationist policies and of exclusionary practices in the schools. If schools hired Spanish-speaking teachers and adapted their curricular and administrative practices to the cultural and intellectual needs of Mexican-American children, it further argued, their self-esteem, cultural identity, and school performance would improve.


Excerpted from Contested Policy by Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.. Copyright © 2004 Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1. Origins of Federal Bilingual Education Policy,
CHAPTER 2. The Expansion of Bilingual Education, 1968–1978,
CHAPTER 3. Retrenchment and Redefinition, 1980–1988,
CHAPTER 4. The Final Push, 1990s,
APPENDIX: Extended Bibliographic Essay,

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