Immigration Reform 2013: Bilingual Instruction Defines Our Education System

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham may be making headlines recently in his quest for immigration reform, but one aspect he’s not talking about is the importance of language. That’s the topic of “Not My Native Tongue,” a new Research Radio podcast from the New School with Natalia Melhman Petrzela.

As an assistant professor of education studies at the university, Petrzela’s work explores ethnic identity and bilingual education in the United States. She believes that bilingual instruction has not only been a key party of education in our multicultural society, but also a defining issue in public schools during the past 50 years.

“In many ways, the civil rights movement of the ’60s was about affirming one’s identity,” said Petrzela. “Minority groups — especially Chicanos and other Latinos — advocating for language education were key in that claiming of distinctiveness.”

In its most controversial form, bilingual public education involves equal attention devoted to instruction in two languages. More common are specialized courses for students learning English designed to get them up to speed with peers whose first language is English. The concept has had a rocky history since its introduction in 1968, when the federal Bilingual Education Act (BEA) was passed, guaranteeing the right to English language classes in all public schools. Still, the U.S. has steadily progressed toward more inclusive and robust instruction for young English language learners — albeit not without some hiccups.

“Many assume that with a federal stamp of approval, issues become much more mainstream and straightforward,” said Petrzela. “But with the passage of BEA, that wasn’t the case.”

Before BEA was passed, many school districts had already implemented innovative language programs, only to see them replaced with programs characterized by standardization and a top-down approach. In addition, poor funding for proposed programs and BEA’s focus on children from low-income families had the unintended consequence of stigmatizing English language learners.

“Instead of being celebrated as unique and recognized for their progress toward bilingualism, these students were looked at as if they had a problem, and because of this, many performed poorly academically,” said Petrzela.

These aren’t the only issues the debate around BEA has brought to light. “For many people, bilingual education hits at the very core of what it means to be an American,” said Petrzela. “Opponents of the legislation believe that classrooms are supposed to uphold common values and fear that bilingual education undermines national identity.”

Despite these problems, Petrzela is optimistic about the future of bilingual education.

“We are definitely at a point of no return as far as including bilingual instruction in our schools,” she said. “And, as people in the Latino community get a firmer foothold in business and politics in our country, the more support there will be for such programs will continue to grow.”

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Research Radio is a New School podcast series that explores academic inquiry at the university. Our faculty and students have been researching pressing social and scientific issues, from sustainability to psychology to politics, for nearly a century, and now you can hear about their latest findings.