Bilingual Education

Over the course of my twenty years as a classroom teacher in California schools, I was surprised to discover how few of my colleagues could speak Spanish, despite the fact that over half of our students came from Spanish-speaking households. I had taken many Spanish language courses in high school and college and worked as a bilingual operator for Sprint for many years before entering the teaching profession. While my teaching credential program included courses on language acquisition and English language development curriculum, there was no requirement for Spanish language fluency in subjects other than Spanish itself. The same holds true today.

Much of this has its roots in California history. The United States acquired the Southwest in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo from Mexico and immediately imposed an English language infrastructure in education, government, and law. Spanish-speaking Californio landowners were systematically deprived of their holdings and their children excluded from the best schools and careers. Anglos soon dominated the business world and education as well as public office. Mexican-Americans were pushed aside by the tens of thousands of newcomers who flooded into California during the Gold Rush. When California was admitted to the Union in 1850, Latinos were largely excluded from the new state government.

The parochial schools established by the Spanish-speaking Franciscan friars in their network of colonial missions were replaced by a public school system that required attendance of all children between 8 and 14 years of age beginning in 1874. The de facto segregation of these schools did not end, however, until the landmark Mendez v. Westminster decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1947. Those six decades were characterized by a lack of quality education for minority children. In many cases, Asian-American and Latino students suffered under the same conditions as African American schoolchildren in the Jim Crow South. Many Native American children were not allowed to attend school at all.

In 1960, the government of California restricted the use of Spanish in public school instruction, and in 1998 Proposition 227 was passed by more than 60% of California voters, requiring that students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) be taught exclusively in English. Proposition 58 finally lifted these restrictions on bilingual education in 2016. In the meantime, thousands of students struggled to succeed in a school environment where the language of instruction was different from that spoken in their homes. This was, and remains, true for many Latino students as well as for their classmates from other non-European cultures.

Before the drastic budget cuts of the Great Recession, many schools had specialized instruction in English Language Development (ELD) courses as well as on-campus ELD program administrators who supported the efforts of teachers of all subjects to effectively reach their LEP pupils. I always appreciated the support offered by those staff members in the schools where I taught. Over the course of my last decade in the classroom, however, I saw those special programs steadily disappear. ELD instruction remained, but its effectiveness varied according to the socio-economic background of the students. Many of those who came from underprivileged families fell behind both in attendance and academic achievement.

There is no universally accepted solution to this problem. Funding for mainstream public schools has continued to fall, and many parents with the means to do so have chosen to place their children in private or charter schools. Some of those charter schools have made a concentrated effort to promote bilingual instruction. Those regular public schools with extra resources of their own have continued to offer multi-level instruction in Spanish and other foreign languages. But for many Spanish-speaking students from economically disadvantaged families, the opportunity for academic success has decreased.

California and other southwestern states have growing Latino populations that have become the majority in many counties. Spanish-speaking families will continue to send their children to public schools to learn English and other required subjects. But in my opinion, Spanish should be a required subject for public school teachers. I found my bilingual skills to be extremely valuable over the years, both in the classroom and in conferences with Spanish-speaking parents. Communicating directly with parents in their own language enabled those students who were struggling in class to reach a much higher level of success than they were otherwise achieving.

Of course, not all my LEP students came from Spanish-speaking families. I had students whose native languages included Korean, Tagalog, Arabic, Thai, Vietnamese, Russian, Mandarin, and many others. But the vast majority of my students who came from non-English-speaking families were Spanish-speakers. I felt it would be irresponsible of me as their teacher to be unable to communicate effectively with their parents. Despite my reasonable fluency in Spanish, I still had to increase my relevant vocabulary, something I undertook on my own accord rather than being required to do so by my administrators. My efforts to do so were met with universal appreciation from Spanish-speaking families.

The exigencies and vicissitudes of political and economic debate will continue to fluctuate with regard to the issue of bilingual education. In the meantime, I advise you to learn Spanish. Even if you are a native speaker or come from a Spanish-speaking family, enrolling in an introductory course at your local community college will help you hone your skills for the classroom. The school environment has its own vocabulary which is particular to your campus and the subject(s) you teach. As a social science teacher in particular, I found my knowledge of Spanish very helpful in presenting my material. But regardless of what you teach, being able to do so in more than one language is always a good thing.

Our student population will continue to grow in size and diversity into the 21st century. Mexican-Americans are finally beginning to return to positions of political and economic power and prestige in California and the other states where their ancestors once held great influence. Other Latino populations and non-English speaking immigrant communities are growing at a rapid rate. Many states have long allowed for multi-lingual ballots on election day. But language in school remains an issue of debate. While Puerto Rico is the sole place within U.S. jurisdiction where Spanish is an official language, nearly one in five Americans is a native Spanish speaker.

English has yet to be declared the legal official language of the United States. Proficiency in its use is not a legal requirement for citizenship. Although Proposition 63 made English the official language of California in 1986, the law remains largely unenforced and faces broad present-day opposition. In the end, our work as teachers is to help our students succeed. Clearly, English remains the dominant language in America and must be mastered in school. An ever increasing fluency in English is essential for our students to do well in class and beyond graduation. But for many who speak something else at home, a bilingual teacher in any of their subjects will certainly be a big help on their road to success.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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