The definition of bilingual education is: instruction for those who do not speak English, by teachers who use the students native language at least part of the day. The term usually has meant teaching students to be fluent in two languages (Worsnap 3). The other option for teaching limited English proficient (LEP) students is an English-based program such as ESL (English as a second language). It is believed that this approach helps students to learn English as quickly as possible so that academic achievement will come more readily (Worsnap 3).
Bilingual education has been a topic for debate for many years on the political scene. The main arguments started in the 1960s when the United States started permitting more Hispanics, Asians, and Africans into the country. In 1968, Congress passed, and Lyndon B. Johnson signed, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which encouraged local schools to establish bilingual programs. In 1974, Title VII was revised to add federal funding for teacher training, development of programs, and materials.
Bilingual education remains controversial in education and political circles 25 years after Congress first endorsed it. Supporters still argue that teaching so-called limited English proficient (LEP) children in their native tongue helps them keep up with their studies while they acquire a firm grasp of English. And opponents continue to insist that bilingual education retards the movement of LEP children into the education mainstream, as well as into American culture in general (Worsnap 2).
One primary goal that both Right and Left political sides seem to agree on is that LEP students need to learn English. The real debate seems to be how to achieve that goal and how much of their native language they should retain in the process. The increasing debate in the government to continue federal, state and local funding for bilingual education seems to stem from which type of bilingual approach is most successful, immersion, transitional, or two-way. In the political debate over bilingual education, one approach that the government can choose to fund is called immersion education.
The word immersion in itself has different connotations within the realm of bilingual education. Most people and politicians acquaint it to the sink or swim method, which is the way most immigrants learned English before the 1960s. But actually, a gradual approach, such as ESL, is more common these days, which enables LEP students to receive extra instruction in English each day in addition to their regular classes (Worsnap 3). In structured immersion classes, students learn English from instructors who teach them subject matter in English.
Lessons are based on clues instructors give to coax students through their lessons and ideally, the students absorb or learn grammar as well as vocabulary in the process (Donegan 29-30). The studies of the immersion technique vary widely. Virginia Collier of George Mason University in Fairfax, VA said in her study on bilingual education that [ . . . ] because non-English-speaking students taught mainly in English fall behind in content learning, [they are left] to play catch-up in the later grades (Donegan 5).
Opponents counter that LEP students in bilingual education programs are often segregated during the school day, which slows assimilation and puts up barriers between different language groups (Donegan 5). Immersion classes, however, only separate for brief periods. In the immersion technique, LEP students should be able to learn enough English in three to four years to move into mainstream classes, where as bilingual education students usually take six to seven years. Another approach that politicians debate is Transitional bilingual education (TBE).
Such programs teach students non-language subjects like science and math in their native language for a limited period while the student learns English, and reading is taught in both languages. Once students reach the desired skill level in English, they attend mainstream classes (Worsnap 4). An offshoot of TBE is developmental bilingual education (DBE), which is essentially the same as TBE, but in addition, it is designed to increase the students native-language. Proponents of DBE consider it additive rather than subtractive as in the TBE approach.
Rep. Toby Roth, R-Wis. ecently asserted, Transitional bilingual education is a dismal failure at what Congress has specifically asked it to accomplish: teach students English (Worsnap 4). Unfortunately, research that has studied TBE greatly differs in opinion. In one study, done in 1981, researchers, Keith A. Baker and Adrian A de Kanter, said of TBE, no consistent evidence supports its effectiveness (Worsnap 6).
The Baker/de Kanter study was refuted by another researcher, Ann C. Willig, who said, Bilingual education has been badly surveyed by a predominance of research that . makes inappropriate comparisons. [ . . . ] . [my research shows that] children in bilingual programs average higher than the comparison groups on the criterion measures (Worsnap 6). TBE is the most commonly used method across the country and does not necessarily try to help the student hold on to their native language, but attempts to get LEP students into mainstream classes as soon as possible. The third approach that political figures debate is called two-way bilingual education and is the most sophisticated of the three.
Donna Christain, Vice-President of the Center for Applies Linguistics, calls two-way bilingual education the wave of the future. It makes the most sense, she says, because it provides native-language support for LEP students, while also giving English speakers the chance to learn another language (Worsnap 17). Two-way bilingual education mixes non-native English-speaking students with roughly an equal number of native speakers in the same classroom where, generally, students are taught in one language in the morning and another in the afternoon (Donegan 29).
The majority of two-way bilingual programs now in operation are Spanish/English. In a recent survey by Christian, 156 two-way programs were in practice nationwide. Christian believes that these programs will become more popular because of the strength in organizing kids to become teachers and role models.  (Worsnap 17). Most researchers seem to agree that students in two-way bilingual education perform better at every level than their peers, no matter what kind of instruction the non-two-way students receive (Donegan 29).
The difference in these approaches seems to be the amount of native language the LEP students are able to retain. And that is where the argument usually lies. Rep. Tony Roth reiterated, So long as English remains the language of opportunity in this nation, we are doing the children of immigrants a grave disservice by giving them less of what they really need English classes and English language instruction (Worsnap 4).
The campaign against multilingualism is mean spirited, said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-N. Y. Its being done for cheap political trickery to get your so-called angry white male even angrier . . . (Donegan 2). Politicians will likely continue the debate over which type of bilingual program to use until there are more statistics to show which bilingual education approach is the most successful in teaching English to LEP students.