Dual Language Instruction in Texas public schools: Language advocates, school boards and administrators must operate on the same plane

by: Chuy Ramirez
Posted: July 27, 2021

The July 2021 edition of IberoAztlan focuses on bilingual education in Texas, and on dual language education, in particular. One segment of the edition consists of the early 1930s education articles printed by Texas Outlook.  The second segment consists of interviews of three Mexican American educators and advocates of dual language instruction. The third segment is this essay, Dual language instruction in Texas public schools: Language advocates, school boards and administrators must be operate on the same plane.  To a large extent, this edition of IberoAztlan has two interrelated objectives. First, along with other laypeople, I seek to understand from bilingual education and dual language advocates how these programs were developed and implemented at the local level.  I felt that only if I understood the historical background, could I truly get a sense of the extent to which the current dual language programs are as successful as they are being touted. Second, I have a deep-felt concern that as political leaders throughout the state and country move increasingly toward the political right, how can we assure that these programs continue to be funded at the necessary levels?  The burden of advocating for these programs may lie directly upon language advocates, school board and administrators operating constantly on the same plane. Which raises the question: As the battle to reject these programs looms on the  horizon, how can exponents of bilingual education and dual language develop a succinct strategy to convince the cynics both on the far political right and Mexican American beneficiaries of the advantages of these programs?

To address the issues that concerned me, in late 2017 and early 2018, I conducted interviews of three distinguished scholars:  Dr. Alejo Salinas, Dr. Leo Gomez and Dr. Francisco Guajardo.  They help us explain the theoretical background which gave rise to the development of these programs as well as the local political and administrative push-back which often hinders the implementation of programs as designed and intended.  Ironically, it is often in majority Mexican American school districts at which Mexican Americans are fully represented on school boards and in the administration where some of the strongest objections to the programs exists. The interviews are included in this July 2021 edition of IberoAztlan (the texts are edited). Further, during that same period, I conducted interviews of two dual language administrators and several dual language teachers at the PharrSan JuanAlamo Independent School District in South Texas.  Portions of the interviews of Ms. Olivia Martinez-Tovar and Ms. Rosalva Silva (as updated) will hopefully be published in an upcoming edition of IberoAztlan.

Language as Political Voice, Identity & Strategy

The English-Only and Segregation Model at Work in the 30s.

The single-most effective legal-political structure in Texas which has been used to subordinate Mexican Americans has been the Texas public school system. Its strongest and most reliable weapons enforced over many decades were its segregated system of education and the use of the English-only immersion pedagogy. Firmly established by the early 1920s, the dual system of education and English-only would continue in large part through the late 1960s.

Significant numbers of Mexican American children began attending Texas public schools during the mid to late 1920s. These included children of agricultural workers who migrated seasonally between their home in Mexico or in South Texas and locales where they and their parents were needed in the vegetable and cotton fields.  At the time, public education was not compulsory, so the numbers of enrolled children, while significant, was only a small percentage of the available scholastics.  By the early 1930s, state law made public education compulsory.  Schools struggled with placement of increasing numbers of Mexican American students, most of whom spoke only Spanish, and many of whom came from recent immigrant families.  The educational literature which has survived from that era is very telling of the approaches made by school districts to educate this special population.  Classes were taught in English, exclusively, by teachers who spoke only English.  Indeed, the use of Spanish was expressly prohibited anywhere in public school campuses.  That methodology would not begin to change until the early 1970s with the advent of bilingual education.

Mexican American students brought to the public schools differences which detracted from teaching English speaking students: lack of English skills, erratic school attendance and varying ages at which they began attending schools.  These latter factors were primarily due to immigration and seasonal migrant status of these communities.   But, there is evidence that in some regions of the state, Mexican American parents may not have perceived the value of learning English.  This may be explained by the temporary status of those communities.  If the family was to stay in Texas only temporarily and intended to return to Mexico, learning English may not have been seen as the best investment. Texas educators in South Texas responded to this circumstance with a dual system of education which would result in the wholesale segregation of elementary Mexican American students from their Anglo counterparts.    On the other hand, the more objective and evidence-based literature from the period suggests an effective Texas policy of providing Mexican American students an inferior and inadequate education with effect, if not, the intent, of failed generations.

The use of English-only in the classroom and elsewhere in the schools was deemed appropriate and rational by the school districts.  But Mexican Americans were caught in a quandary. To get ahead, they needed to acquire cognitive skills. Acquiring cognitive skills could only be done in English according to the prevailing thought.  English could only be learned in a segregated school in a segregated Mexican American enclave.  And, Mexican American students could only learn English from scratch from a monolingual English-speaking teacher and without translation from Spanish.

Exactly when and why speaking Spanish in the public schools became a punishable violation is impossible to determine.  In Texas, each school district, is given great discretion to manage the local schools. At the school level, the school principal or teacher has traditionally retained the authority to determine when a student policy violation deserves corporal punishment.  In any case, the corporal policy for speaking Spanish was well in effect by the early 1950s and students were beingpaddled” for speaking Spanish as late as the 1960s. Giving the school district the benefit of the doubt that their motivation for the English-only policy was strictly to persuade students to learn English would be irrational.   But let’s do so for the sake of moving forward.  The policy actually worked to persuade generations of Mexican Americans that Spanish was as bad as uttering a profanity and had no value to their learning.  And that was their home language and language of their parents.  Spanish was not seen as resource, but, rather as a useless distraction and a liability. And that view, instilled in Mexican Americans for close to a century, would seem to remain very much subliminally and subconsciously ingrained in the minds even of current generations of Mexican Americans.  Decades of the English-only model to instruct children who entered the public schools without a lick of English produced dreadful results.  

Dual Language:  Instructional Value

By 2021, the use of Spanish has become very much a part of Texas public schools bilingual (and especially dual-language) programs. But, other languages Vietnamese, Mandarin — are increasingly in use as well.

As one would expect, within the political dynamics of any public expenditure, current dual language programs have their strong supporters, but also face perhaps even stronger challengers.  Challenges to bilingual and dual language instruction come from two primary perspectives: a purely ideologically ethnocentric one; and a pedagogical one.  The former is represented by a varying coalition of activists which runs the gamut from far-right racists to conservative political leaders. Here, we do not directly address that ideological challenge. Still, a perceived failure of these programs to accomplish their intended educational objectives will give credence to ideological detractors. And believe you me, the strongest attack on the programs will be based on their alleged inefficiency or outright failure.  Over the long term, any challenge to public expenditures for a pedagogy that does not accomplish its goals is likely to succeed. And that includes dual-language instruction.  My discussions with administrators, principals teachers and support staff engaged in dual language programs gave me great concern.   Even in a school district which touts its successful dual language program,  both the policy support for and level of fidelity to the program varied from school to school.     For instance, in one elementary school, the principal is given great latitude to decide how strongly to support the program. During the interviews with parents to explain the programs (which are entirely discretionary with the parents) strong advocacy was lacking.   Some administrative staff at the highest level with direct supervisory responsibility over program staff were either not sold on the program or did not fully understand how the program must be implement and maintained with great fidelity for it succeed.   I heard repeatedly that principals are evaluated on the basis of their student success.  Their fidelity to the program will vary based on their students’ grades.  Unless a program indicates quick results, they may have tendency to move on to the next best approach which can generate better grades. Dual language instruction involves a dedication to one of several models that I categorize as gifted and talented because the school policy must involve that type of focus and dedication.

In light of the foregoing, I offer the semblance of an aggressive political and marketing approach to advocacy on behalf of dual language programs that has to be sustained if these programs are to remain in place in any effective way.

The Nature and Change of Language Use

For Mexican Americans in Texas, Spanish had been a fundamental, if not exclusive, means of formal and informal communication means since the days of Nueva Espana.  Indeed, even in the early 1960s, it would have been rare to find a Mexican American household where Spanish was not the native or principal home language. Most Mexican Americans lived in segregated enclaves. It is likely that few Mexican Americans had been raised outside of these ethnolinguistic enclave communities and neighborhoods where Spanish was the primary, if not the only, language used. But perhaps more importantly, the Texas dual system of education had imposed an inflexible English-only pedagogy since nearly the beginning of the 20th Century. It was based on the theory that cognition could occur only through acquisition of English. The English-only methodology was strictly enforced in the public schools using two mechanisms: forbidding the use of Spanish to children entering the public schools knowing only Spanish, and segregating them from Anglo students until at least the sixth grade.

The segregated dual system adopted by Texas public schools was very similar to the separate but equal system used to segregate African Americans.  It was brutal and demeaning and succeeded in forcing most kids out of school, typically, several years before they could legally do so. Did some Mexican American students excel in spite of the system. Certainly, but the data shows that only a handful did so.

The Early Advocates for Bilingual Education and Development of Developing a Checklist for Advocacy

Early bilingual education advocates, Severo Gomez and Al Ramirez, offered what must have seemed a revolutionary course in order to reverse the exceedingly high student drop-out and failure rates among Mexican American students during the 1950s and 1960s.  The English-only pedagogy, in place since the turn of the 20th Century, had remained firmly established. But the child who comes to school speaking only Spanish must be taught in her native language, Gomez and Ramirez argued.  How intuitive, how sensible, it all sounded.  Some school districts would implement modified versions of the pedagogy advocated by Gomez and Ramirez. Yet, that intuitiveness which Gomez and Ramirez expounded would be quickly disregarded by a political compromise called “bilingual education” that would be instituted in Texas over the next three decades.  

The foregoing requires some exposition.  First, what the native language advocates such as Gomez and Ramirez were proffering during the 1960s, was based on a logic no different than what the school system was already doing:  providing instruction in the child’s native language using a model designed for native language speakers.  No educator in her right mind would hazard the thought that native English speakers should be forced into a classroom in which all instruction was exclusively in a foreign language.  It just makes no sense.  Yet, children who enrolled in school speaking no English, were forced into English-only schools.  By prohibiting the use of Spanish even to translate a word, Spanish speaking children were effectively forced to learn a new language in an entirely irrational and unnatural way. But that was only the beginning of the problem.   For, while English-speaking children were learning curricular content, Spanish-speaking children focused only on learning the basics of the English language. Ramirezs approach allowed the children to learn curricular content in Spanish, on a parallel tract with their learning the English language.  Theoretically then, in this dual language approach, the childs acquisition of subject-matter cognition does not suffer as it does in the English-only paradigm.  

Second, native language advocates were advocating native language instruction for those students who were identified in the literature as “Limited English Proficient” (“LEPs) and “English Language Learners” (“ELLs”).  ELL status is currently determined on the basis of a child’s entry – level evaluation.  Thus, native English speakers need not be concerned that their children will be forced into dual language programs. In fact, dual language enrollment is entirely up to the child’s parents. One would hope that parents of native English speakers acknowledge that biliteracy results in cognitive flexibility for native English speakers as well.  Overcoming the stigma that learning Spanish is a waste of time has to be a fundamental objective of language advocates.

Third, the overarching objective of dual language instruction is to reduce (and/or close) the achievement gap which is evident between native English speakers and ELLs.  The existence of an achievement gap is indisputable.  That achievement gap is, to a large extent, due to the failure of the traditional English-only instruction.    While some progress has been made over time, given a myriad of remedial and enrichment programs, the ELL achievement gap has remained at significant levels.  The irony is why in the light of this failure, educators would refuse to seriously consider the merits of dual language instruction and continue to rely on the failed English-only approach.

Fourth, the goals of the methodology offered by native language advocates (which is all too often overlooked) is two-fold: (a) to teach ELL students taught on-grade curricular content in their native language on par with students who are being instructed in English, while (b) ELLs simultaneously acquire English skills on a time-frame which will assure on-grade achievement and English proficiency within five to seven years of initial enrollment. Dual language experts caution that to succeed, the models must be implemented with fidelity and rigor.  All too often, they warn, a failure to understand the pedagogy fully, results in teachers and administrators diverging from the model and declaring the process a failure. Such divergence is pointed to by the dual language advocates as their greatest concern.

Fifth, dual language advocates in Texas, beginning with Dr. Severo Gomez and Al Ramirez in the 1960s and 1970s, sought to distinguish between simply “learning English” and “achieving literacy.” To argue against that approach, some traditional English-only advocates even relied on antiquated and disproven theories that the brain had limited capacity for achievement.  Physical space being a limiting factor in the brain’s capacity for cognition, the deletion of Spanish was an additional feature of the English-only model.  It was believed that every child, regardless of her legacy language, could only be served by “learning English and avoiding entirely an Spanish.  Hence, the prominent use of an English-only immersion rationale and the demeaning and devaluing strategy undertaken to force students to forget their home language(including through forced removal of the language through corporal punishments). Dual-language advocates are quick to point out that cognition occurs regardless of language.  They posit that if the child gains literacy initially in Spanish, that literacy will be translated into English as the child acquires English skills.

Interestingly, dual language advocates have not quarreled with the English immersion model. ELLs can indeed learn English through an English-immersion approach.  Their quarrel is with that approach being the only approach.  And the reason is that with the English-only   pedagogy, teaching/acquisition of on-grade curricular content is necessarily deferred due to the children’s acquisition rate of English language skills.  The dual language model is relatively simple: do not (never) forego the learning of English, but simply provide on-grade curricular instruction in the child’s native language until the child is English proficient.  In fact, the rigor imposed by the dual language models requires heavier doses of language arts in the child’s native and second language.  Dual language learning is not learning less; it is learning much more and developing cognitive flexibility through acquisition of two languages.  A major element of this cognitive flexibility which mature bilinguals recognize is their ability to understand and describe mental knowledge representations in either language.  That is an unusual skill in the United States which is hardly acknowledged. Advocates of dual language instruction must be able to understand that concept and to explain it with great ease.

On-grade curricular instruction means that whatever content instruction is provided in English on-grade to the general student population, is equally provided in the native language to ELL students.  Thus, if the first-grade language arts curriculum includes conceptually understanding alliteration and stanzas, for example, ELLs will be similarly instructed on these concepts in their native language.  Without dual language instruction, teaching/learning of these concepts to the ELL child will be either deferred/delayed for several years, or the child will simply never be equipped to fully acquire those concepts.  This necessary deferral of achievement by ELLs in all content areas is the primary evil of the insistence on traditional English-only models. Strategies, such as pulling the early language learner out of an Englishonly class for some minor remediation, are a hopeless waste of time and valuable resources.

Sixth, dual language advocates reject the bilingual education remedial approach to learning by ELLs.  In its place, they require a vigorous educational environment akin to the creative instructional approaches used in gifted and talented programs.  These are much more expansive and demanding in scope. Always, ELL children must be taught on-grade level curricular content in their native language.

In order to prepare for that rigorous process to learn on-grade curricular content in her native language, the child must acquire metalinguistic awareness.  Metalinguistic awareness includes “special sensitivity to features of speech and writing and how they are related to each other.  Dual language linguists theorize that for the ELL child, metalinguistic skills are initially more easily acquired by the child in her native language.  And these skills are transferrable to English.  Thus, if properly instructed, the ELL child will be on-grade level for learning curriculum in her native language at the end of her first elementary school year.  There is no need to delay or defer her education. The only difference between the ELL child and the native-English speaker child is that the native-English speaker will have acquired those same skills in English.

Seventh, exceedingly frustrating for parents, teachers and administrators are the following issues: (a) when will the ELL child placed in a dual language program be English-proficient? and (b) by what grade level will the so-called “transfer of conceptual knowledge” to English occur? A related question is, when will my ELL child close the achievement gap? These are very important questions which may not be shrugged off by dual language advocates.  And advocates must accept the challenge. The essence of learning is the “development of and access to [knowledge] mental representations.” Advocates theorize that metalinguistic skills, and the related academic skills such as proficient reading and verbal ability necessary to develop and analyze mental representations, transfer across languages.  Thus, for example, phonological awareness, which is an understanding of how spoken words are structured and consist of individual parts, is essential for alphabetic reading, regardless of whether it is in English or Spanish, and transfers across languages.  The objective of dual language instruction is to create of the ELL child a truly bilingual and biliterate person.  Needless to say, with proper phasing of instruction, the child is capable of accomplishing that.  A parent weighing the factors of whether to enroll her child in a dual language must understand these objectives.  But, she never will unless the key person at intake at the childs pre-kinder admission can fully explain these concepts.

Caution is important; truth is critical. The mere enrollment of the child in dual language instruction is no assurance that she will prevail and become truly bilingual and biliterate.  But there appears to be no better opportunity to equip that ELL child to access the knowledge in both languages and develop her cognitive abilities.  Will a high school graduate with a bilingual/biliteracy seal on her diploma be guaranteed English linguistic skills and an English lexicon on a level with a native English-speaking high school graduate?  She must still deal with other limiting factors beyond the control of the school district. But no other pedagogy appears to equip the ELL child to do so. Conversely, she will be equipped to acquire both English and Spanish linguistic skills and proficient lexicons in English and Spanish at will.  That is precisely why I categorize dual language programs as comparable, if not superior, to gifted and talented programs.

Admittedly, numerous factors affect a child’s ability to achieve.  Sadly, most factors are beyond the school district’s and the teacher’s control. Socio-economic background, language barriers, parental engagement and student behavior are matters which teachers and school districts can hardly control.  But what the school district and teachers can do is create an educational and instructional environment which does not exacerbate the negative influences which the child is subject to and which impact her educational achievement.

Dual language methodology adds a supportive element to the educational and instructional environment of the ELL child, which is generally referred to as a “cultural” element, as well as a demand for rigor in instruction.  Early native language advocates recognized the intangible value of incorporating attitudinal variables to the dual language learning environment.  These variables cannot be overlooked.  While the cultural element cannot always be defined, it includes: (a) respect for the child’s language and home and family culture and (b) incorporating the essence of being of the children in their everyday school environment (which relates to each child’s identity).  

The attitude of the principal players who determine school policy is perhaps the most important variable which can be controlled by a school district.  The recurrent theme in the interviews presented here sets out the school district’s oversight responsibilities upon implementing dual language models: (a) adopting high standards and expectations while rejecting condescending attitudes; (b) imposing vigorous instruction, (c) requiring fidelity to the dual language model by administrators and teachers, (e) conducting regular  assessment of the ELL child’s progress in addition to the state-mandated student assessments and (f) aggressively challenging parents to engage in their children’s education both at home and at school.

 

Chuy Ramirez is an attorney practicing law in the Rio Grande Valley since 1983, and dabbles in writing.

PUBLISHER’S NOTICE

The September 2021 edition of IberoAzltan will be our ninth. We had projected publication of six editions which would be focused primarily on an interview project which we began in 2017, called the Chicana/o Legacy Project. The interest in and support for IberoAztlan was Unexpected.

Rather than ceasing publication as originally intended, we are offering to transfer all publisher’s rights, powers, and legal authority to anyone (individually or otherwise) who has the interest and wherewithal to carry on the project.  The purchase price is $1.00, and the consideration and conditions are negotiable.

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