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Emergent Bilinguals: How Policy Has Misunderstood a National Resource

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Published: 2/14/2008 11:39:00 AM


English language learners are making scant progress in overcoming the achievement gap, not only because of inadequate funding, but also because federal and state educational policy actually create stumbling blocks by prohibiting or discouraging the use of the educational practices that research has clearly shown to be most effective for their needs.  This was the basic message that Ofelia Garcia, Professor of Bilingual Education at Teachers College, Columbia University delivered to a standing room only audience on January 30, 2008.

Garcia’s talk was the first of a series of forums being convened by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. Her remarks were drawn from an extensive study of the research in this area entitled “From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals” which she co-authored with Professor Jo Anne Kleifgen, and Lorraine Falchi.

The paper calls for a new attitude and a new approach to the students that are now generally referred to as English language learners (ELLs) or students with limited English proficiency (LEPs).  By using the new term “emergent bilinguals,” Professor Garcia urges educators to view these students as a national resource, not as a deficit.  She argues that past policies have misunderstood bilingualism and led to educational inequities, and she sees a high potential in nurturing the bilingual capacity of these students in an increasingly globalized world.

Persistent Gap Between Research and Practice

Evidence shows that using a student’s home language in the classroom helps emergent bilinguals reach higher levels of achievement and that through linguistic interdependence a student’s native language can be used to bolster English acquisition and promote cognitive learning.  Consequently, a great body of research supports bilingual education over monolingual education for ELL students.  Yet, the report points out that state and federal policy orientation is tilted dramatically against bilingual education. 

According to the report, between 1992 and 2002 the number of ELLs in grades K-12 grew by 72 percent, while their enrollment in bilingual programs declined from 37 percent to 17 percent.  Several states, including , adopted legislation that prohibits or severely restricts use of these programs.  This move towards an “English-only” approach was reinforced by the Bush administration when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was signed into law in 2002.  The authors conclude that these policies have furthered inequities in educating and assessing emergent bilinguals, and they advocate a change in policy from English only instruction to bilingual and dual language programs. 

The report concludes that current assessments do not measure the learning of emergent bilinguals because they contain built-in content and speech biases, and because subject matter is often tangled with academic language - making it difficult to measure cognitive knowledge. Furthermore, the report highlights the devastating effects of high-stakes testing required by NCLB, and it supports “dynamic” performance based assessments instead.  According to the authors, ELL assessments raise key equity concerns regarding two main issues: content proficiency and validity.  The validity of assessments for emergent bilinguals is often questioned because these assessments run the risk of not measuring what they intend to measure. 

James Crawford, President of the Institute for Language and Education Policy and a discussant at the event, provided a historical perspective that illustrated the sharp turn in policy regarding language proficiency at the federal level over the past few decades. Alluding to policy language in the major media, he demonstrated how references to education policy dramatically shifted from an overwhelming use of “equal opportunity” concepts in the 1960s and 1970s to an output oriented focus on accountability and achievement gaps in the 1990s and 2000s.  Building on his presentation, the second discussant and Co-Director for the Center for Immigrant Families, Donna Nevel, provided a community organizers’ perspective on the challenges involved in mounting a bilingual or dual language program that truly meets the needs of emergent bilingual students.

Equity Forums

In its equity forum series this spring and continuing into the next school year, the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, will cover issues in the following 11 other areas that define its conception of comprehensive educational equity [link to record article]:

Read the report, "From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals," by Ofelia Garcia, Jo Anne Kleifgen, and Lori Falchi.

Listen to the podcast of the January ELL forum
(iTunes software required. Download iTunes)