Bilingual Education

Bilingual education is the practice of teaching non-English-speaking children in their native language, while they are learning English. Developed in the 1970’s, the basic idea was to teach the school subjects–math, science, social studies—in the child’s first language so the child would not fall behind his English-speaking classmates. English language lessons were also provided. Bilingual children were schooled apart from English speakers for most of the school day for several years, a substantially separate and costly education.

Why does ProEnglish oppose bilingual education?

After 30 years of the bilingual experiment and billions of dollars spent, reliable research shows that these programs fail to teach students the English language and literacy they need for school success. The idea was well-intentioned, but it has proven to be a failure.  Segregation by language and ethnicity does not lead to higher academic performance, does not raise students’ self-esteem, results in social isolation and may contribute to high drop-out rates.  Delaying the learning of English, the language of school and community life, holds back student achievement.  Graduating from high school without fluency and literacy in English deprives students of opportunity in an English-speaking country.

ProEnglish supported state initiatives to end bilingual education.  Voters in three states that had long years of experience with bilingual programs gave strong approval to the “English for the Children” initiative to replace bilingual education with English Immersion teaching.  California in 1998 gave 60% voter approval to the change; Arizona voters gave 62% approval in 2000; and in Massachusetts in 2002 a 68% majority voted for change. At present only three states still require bilingual education: Texas, Illinois and New Jersey. Teaching American children another language is laudable, but is an entirely different issue. ProEnglish believes it is the responsibility of our public schools to teach non-English-speaking children English as rapidly as possible.

What programs do work?

English Immersion programs, now called “Structured English Immersion (SEI)” work best.  In these programs, students spend one full school year (or longer, if necessary) studying the English language—learning to speak, read, and write, and to master the vocabulary they need to learn school subjects taught in English.  As soon as students are skilled in English, they join their classmates in regular classrooms where all teaching is in English. Both in California and Arizona, state test reports show students learning English in an average of two years, and achieving passing scores on reading and math tests as well.  These results are not unusual.

Much research comparing students in bilingual programs to students in English Immersion has reported far better results in the English Immersion classes.  Documented, reliable data has come from Dade County, Florida (1987), El Paso, Texas (1992), New York City Public Schools (1994), Arizona (2004, 2006, 2008) and California (2008). (see Selected Studies)

In a Lexington Institute study published in 2008, it is reported that some of the highest-performing students in California public schools are children who started kindergarten with little or no English. (see Lexington/Jacobs study)  In June 2009, Massachusetts proudly announced that in seventeen of the forty-two Boston high schools the valedictorian of the graduating class was a student who had come from another country within the past few years, without any knowledge of English.  With English Immersion support, these students not only learned English rapidly but were able to achieve success in high school classes at a high level.

In California, Superintendent of Schools Ken Noonan, former head of the California Association for Bilingual Education, changed his mind completely after the first year of English Immersion in his schools.  When he saw how quickly the students learned English and school subjects taught in English, he became a vocal supporter of English language programs.

So why do schools still use bilingual education?

Thirty years of research shows that bilingual education:

— Does not lead to faster or better learning of English

— Does not lead to better learning of school subjects, and

— Does not produce higher self-esteem in students.

The first two items were, indeed, the original expectations of the laws passed.  A politically powerful bureaucracy continues to promote these programs for ideological reasons, for higher school funding and extra teaching jobs.  Some educators promote bilingual education as a way of “maintaining one’s native language and culture.” That is not the responsibility of our public schools but of the family and community.  With 327 languages represented in the U.S. today, the mission of our schools is not to maintain family languages but to give students the tools to succeed as productive citizens.

Politicians fear any vote against bilingual education will mark them as hostile to minorities.  But millions of people in three states voted for English language teaching, including substantial numbers from immigrant communities, a sign that politicians are out of step with the people they represent.  A READ Institute survey showed 81% of Hispanics want their children to learn English quickly; only 12% wanted their children taught in Spanish, one of many surveys showing such attitudes. Immigrants come to this country seeking to thrive in our society, yet our public schools often fail to give them the skills needed to prosper and participate in our democratic discourse.

The Current Status of Education for Non-English Speaking Students

States with substantial numbers of English Language Learners report the following data on school enrollment and educational practices:

Arizona: Enrolls 7% of all English Learners in U.S. schools.  Since changing to Structured English Immersion teaching in 2002, the state reports a consistent improvement in the school performance of ELL students.  On average, students exit the English-teaching program in two years and have high passing rates on state tests of reading, math and writing (2006, 2008).  Arizona is leading other states in developing innovative curriculum for English teaching and for student success.

Alaska: State law requires bilingual/bicultural education for its population of Aleut and American Indian students.

California: First to overturn bilingual programs by voter initiative (1998) and home to the largest Spanish-speaking population of all states (51.4% reported in November 2010), the state has documented steadily higher achievement for formerly ELL students on state tests of reading and math.  Three-fourths of the state’s ELL students are in English Immersion programs.

Colorado: Only state to vote down an initiative to end bilingual programs in 2002.  The state maintains Spanish bilingual programs.

Connecticut: Ended bilingual programs in 2000 for the mainly Spanish-speaking ELL students concentrated in the public schools of the three largest cities.

Florida: State law allows either bilingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for its 300,000 English Learners.

Illinois: Retains its mandate for bilingual education. Enrolls about 200,000 ELL students.

Massachusetts: First in the U.S. to pass a law requiring bilingual teaching (Transitional Bilingual Education, 1971).  The state referendum in 2002 brought in a complete change of education with 85% of ELLs now enrolled in English Immersion programs.  Approximately 50,000 students are classified ELL.  Scattered evidence of improved achievement for ELLs may be obtained from the Department of Education but no comprehensive study has yet been produced by the state.

Michigan: Like Florida, allows either bilingual or ESL programs but only provides state funding for bilingual education.  That essentially removes any incentive for program choice.

Nevada: No law requires bilingual education for the high proportion of school children who are not fluent in English (1 in 4) and little is known of what is common practice.

New Jersey: Retains its bilingual education law for its mainly Spanish-speaking ELL students.  There is no referendum process in this state.

New Mexico: Requires bilingual or ESL programs for its English Learners who constitute one in every four students in the public schools.

New York: Does not have a bilingual education law, allows either bilingual or ESL programs, and enrolls approximately 250,000 ELL students.  A study conducted in the New York City Public Schools in the mid-1990s established the superior results of the English-teaching approach:  students in ESL classes learned English and learned subject matter in English in 2-3 years; students in bilingual classes needed 6-7 years to reach the same levels of achievement and had a higher high school drop-out rate. (see Selected Studies)

Texas: Mandates bilingual education for at least three years, and enrolls about 750,000 ELL students.  Dr. Christine Rossell’s 2009 study, “Does Bilingual Education Work?  The Case of Texas” answers that question with a resounding, “No, it emphatically does not work better than  ESL.”  (see Selected Studies)



Court challenges to the English Immersion law in California did not succeed in overturning “English for the Children.”  Bilingual education is over in California, the state with half of the five million English Language Learners (ELL) in the country.  The State of Arizona Department of Education has fought off attacks on its English Immersion programs in a case that was ruled favorably for the state in the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2009, Flores vs. State of Arizona.  Across the country, bilingual education is no longer the default mode of teaching.  The battle has largely been won, giving children the best avenue to an equal educational opportunity, reducing the segregation of English Learners and lowering spending for public education.



The Case Against Bilingual Education, The Atlantic Magazine, May 1998

The Benefits of English Immersion, Educational Leadership, January 2000

Please contact ProEnglish at 202-507-6203 or click here, if you would like to purchase Board Member Rosalie Porter’s book, American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages.  The new version of the book will be coming out this April!

Resources on effective schooling for English Language Learners:

Selected Studies comparing Effectiveness of English Immersion Programs vs. Bilingual Programs for English Learner Students, 2009

Congressional Quarterly Press Report, 2009

The Case Against Bilingual Education, The Atlantic Magazine, May 1998

The Benefits of English Immersion, Educational Leadership, January 2000

Lexington Institute study “The Value of English Proficiency to the United States Economy,” 2009

Lexington Institute study “English Learner Success in California Schools” 2008