A Short History of Bilingual Education in the US

Contrary to what the average American may believe today, bilingualism has existed in the United States since the early colonial days. Crawford (2004) mentions many languages spoken on the island of Manhattan in the mid-1600s. In fact, a plethora of languages was spoken with German, Swedish, Irish, Welsh, Dutch and French among the most prominent (Crawford, 2004, p. 81). However, as time went by, fear of the “alien” grew and eventually developed into an outright English-only movement.

From Bilingualism to the Rebirth of Bilingualism

Bilingualism was common in the early days of the American colonies. On the small island of Manhattan, for example, at least 18 languages were used, and people from all walks of life could be heard using non-English languages. As an illustration of the prevalence of other vernaculars, a poster for runaway domestic workers listed the language skills of one individual who spoke some “Dutch, German, Spanish and Irish” (Crawford, 2004, p. 81). Moreover, bilingual education existed in many places and was accepted or rejected according to the dominant language in each area. For example, there were German public and parochial schools where German was the dominant language. Other languages are known to have been in use in public and parochial schools until the mid-1800s were Swedish and Italian (Crawford, 2004, p. 85).

At the turn of the 20th Century, however, fear of immigrants and their cultures was so high that a poem published in the Atlantic Monthly referred to immigrants as ” These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,/Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws./In street and alley what strange tongues are loud,/Accents of menace alien to our air…” (Aldrich). In 1918, this sentiment will lead to an era of Americanization efforts conducted by Ellwood P. Cubberly, dean of the Stanford school of education. Ellwood advocated the dispersal of immigrant groups to teach them Anglo-Saxon values and culture. Ellwood’s efforts will eventually lead to the rise of language restriction in many states and territories, including Puerto Rico, where English will be imposed as the language of instruction in public schools. The overall trend at the time was Anglo-conformity, the forced espousal of everything of Anglo-Saxon origin. Americanism even led to the forced removal of Indians from Eastern states (Crawford, 2004).

Eventually, in early 1960, in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, Dade County, Florida will lead the way to the rebirth of bilingual education. With an influx of Cuban refugees fleeing from the revolution, three events militated for bilingual education. These were the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, the Anti-Poverty Initiatives of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (which brought social inequalities to the forefront), and the Cold War (which triggered to search for scientific talent and forced a greater involvement of the federal government in designing education policy) (Crawford, 2004).

Evolution of Bilingual Education Policy

Initially, three laws signaled the shift in education policy: the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The first of these laws aimed to ensure that the United States had enough qualified scientists to compete with Soviet scientists whose work had resulted in the launch of Sputnik, the first spacecraft. It supported more college enrollment and made funds available to promote interest in math and science (princeton.edu). The second law forbade discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin (US Senate Committee on the Judiciary), and the third one aimed to ensure improved academic achievement for the “disadvantaged,” train and recruit educational personnel and provide language support for LEPs and immigrant students.

With the passage of these laws, New Mexico ushered in a new era of bilingual education beginning in 1969. Despite these legislations, the government had focused mainly on discrimination against African American while children of Mexican immigrants continued to suffer the brunt of discrimination. This contradiction will be addressed on May 25, 1970, when Pottinger, the then director of the Federal Office for Civil Right will write a memo requiring schools to provide services for language minority students. Here again, the impact of this notice will be minimal. Eventually, it is in courts that Mexican students will secure a favorable mandate through the Serna v. Portales Municipal Schools (Crawford, 2004). Texas will follow suit in 1981 with a mandate by Judge William Wayne. Even though this mandate will be reversed a year later, it set the stage for programs destined for language minority students in the state of Texas. Hence, through legal victories, including the famous Lau v. Nichols (1974), it appeared that the needs of LEP students were being addressed. However, the were no clear directives or proposals regarding programs and only 6% of qualified LEP students were receiving proper accommodation. To address the situation, Senators Ted Kennedy, and Walter Mondale will introduce legislation to include at least 15% of qualified LEPs (Crawford, 2004, pp. 111-112).

Even though the future looked promising for LEPs, an American Institute for Research (AIR) report released in 1977-1978 will claim that there is no evidence of the effectiveness of bilingual education (Crawford, 2004). Strengthened by the findings of this report, the Washington Post’s Noel Epstein will release “Language, Ethnicity and the Schools,” a paper in which he critiques bilingual education, going so far as to label it “Affirmative Ethnicity.” For Epstein, teaching children ethnic pride was a parental prerogative, not a government obligation. Hence, he staunchly opposed the use of taxpayer dollars to finance bilingual education programs (Crawford, 2004). Epstein’s paper convince many, including President Reagan, who opposed maintenance programs, that is, bilingual programs that promoted the preservation of students’ first language. At the time of the re-certification of Title VII in 1984, proponents of bilingual education had to make some concessions limiting the scope of bilingual education. The new programs would be known as Special Alternative Instructional Programs (SAIP’s). These programs made provisions for parents of LEPs, gifted students, the replication of effective instructional models and limited Developmental Bilingual Education. Frustrated by the inertial of the OCR, more parents will now take their cases directly to federal courts (Crawford, 2004, p. 128).

Bilingualism or Monolingualism?

For over 200 years, English had been the de facto official language of the United States, but constitutionally, the US had no official language. Still, to the Average American, English was the official language (Crawford, 2004, p. 131). It was not until Senator Hayakawa’s call for English as the official language of the United States failed that pro-English sentiments began to grow. Bilingual education became an easy target, especially for those who thought it was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Previously, it had been seen as one of the most successful ways of ensuring both academic success and the maintenance and development of students’ first language (Crawford, 2004).

Around this time, US English, an English-only organization was created under the impulse of the then former California Senator Hayakawa. The objective of the group was to advocate for English to become the official language of the United States. They claimed that English was threatened. Hence, their agenda was to convince federal and state institutions to mandate English as the only language used in any program they funded. Soon, the group began to enjoy the support of many celebrities and politicians. Attacked by opponents on charges of racism after some its members used racially charged language to describe immigrants (Crawford, 2004, p 135), US English hired a Hispanic president, Linda Chavez, who recast the group’s image as an organization concerned with the welfare of the United States. By positing the group’s agenda as a way of bringing new immigrants into the mainstream, the group garnered support again. However, this victory was short-lived. After a racially charged message had become known to the public, many of the group’s leaders began to distance themselves from it, and the popularity of US English declined (Crawford, 2004, pp. 135-139).

This decrease led to the birth of a new group called English Plus in 1985. This new group comprised members of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Spanish American League Against Discrimination (SALAD). The two groups will create the English Plus Information Clearinghouse (EPIC) with the aim of promoting cultural and democratic pluralism, as well as multilingual skills as a path to cross-cultural understanding and better world trade.

Even with many of its leaders gone, US English kept exerting influence on policy makers. They met many times with Reagan administration officials, especially with former ESL director and author Rosalie Porter, to discuss educational policy. Though Porter got support from the organization and was apparently pushing their agenda, she claimed the support she received from the group had no strings attached. As criticism of bilingual education mounted on the impulse of those convinced by English-only proponents, including then education secretary William Bennett, Congressman Augustus Hawkins asked the General Accounting Office of Congress to assess the real effectiveness or lack thereof of bilingual education. The assessment conducted by an independent group of experts overwhelmingly rejected Secretary Bennett’s critiques. In fact, in their results, the team found that students who had been in bilingual programs had the best scores on the standardized test and in many cases did better that native speakers of English.

Even though these results clearly supported bilingual education, it would take a lot of diplomacy for advocates of bilingual education to make gains. They had learned that politics takes precedence over research when it comes to educational policy. Consequently, around 1993, a group known as the Stanford Working Group devised a document called A Blueprint for the Second Generation. Their goal was to have bilingual education included with the overall school reform agenda. They wanted equal opportunity for all students and special programs for limited language students (Crawford, 2004, pp. 149-150). The group also broadened its agenda to include Title VII. With the beginning of the Clinton administration, many of the group’s recommendations would be adopted. The recommendations encouraged bilingual education, specifically developmental bilingual programs, defined states’ role in ensuring adequate LEP programs, and mandated districts to identify and provide services for LEPs and involve their parents in the decision-making process. Finally, it seemed that the proponents of bilingual education had made important gains.

ESL/Bilingual Education in New York City

New York City has witnessed a proliferation of ESL/Bilingual programs over the past decade and a half. As the demographics of the city changes, so do programs intended to serve the new populations. Hence, in New York City in general, and particularly in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, many schools have opened to address the needs of an increasing LEP population. Currently, around 100 schools citywide offer some form of bilingual or ESL program, and the languages include French, English, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Korean (Bilingual Education Student Information Survey, Winter 2010). The message on the Department of Education ELL page states that the DOE is dedicated to serving ELL’s, people with limited English language skills and their parents through professional development for teachers, the publication of better educational materials and an environment that promotes academic achievement, language development cross-cultural understanding.

To accomplish its stated goals, the New York City Education Department has created many curricula targeted specifically to LEPs. Depending on the type of program offered, schools may have school curricula entirely in a foreign language for specific grade levels. The website provides general guidelines for creating a school curriculum in the foreign language, but no ready-made curriculum is available. On the other hand, there was a school curriculum made specifically to help LEPs understand the same concepts their other peers are learning. For example, a school programs for grades 2-4 states that “Students will listen, speak, read and write in English for information and understanding” (ESL Elementary Grades, p. 34). In one of the tasks, students, and their teacher go on a neighborhood walk and observe people engaged in various occupations. Once they get back to school, they work in pairs to complete a chart for the jobs they found. The task and instructions vary slightly for beginning, intermediate and advanced level. Another unit on fractions uses many pictures of words that might be difficult for students to understand. The instructions also recommend pre-teaching certain vocabulary words that might hinder comprehension.


Diversity is a reality in American schools today, just as it was in areas of the country even in the early colonies. With the NCLB mandate, all education stakeholders need to ensure no child is left by the wayside because of language challenges. The development and implementation of a bilingual program need the conjugated efforts of educators, second language acquisition experts, and parents. Teacher education programs can help by using the findings of research on LEPs to prepare not only ESL/bilingual teachers but also content area teachers to provide support to their students.


Aldrich, T. B. (Date unknown). “Unguarded Gates” (accessed at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/liberty/aldrichp.html)

Crawford, J. (2004). Educating English learners: language diversity in the classroom. 5th ed. Los Angeles, CA: Bilingual Educational Services.

National Defense Education Act (1958). (Accessed at http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/National_Defense_Educ ation_Act.html)

New York City Dual Language Programs (2010). Bilingual Education Student Information Survey (Accessed at http://www.cfn107.org/uploads/6/1/9/2/6192492/dual_language_programs.pdf)

New York City Education Department English Language Learners (2013). The Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners (accessed at http://schools.nyc.gov/Academics/ELL/default.htm)

New York City Education Department (2013). Spanish Native Language Curriculum Guide (accessed at http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/CF6EDD53-9581-44FF- B390-8F5AEA5461F7/0/SNLACGFinal092413_khFINAL.pdf)

New York City Education Department (2013). Sample unit on fraction for 5th grade (accessed at http://schools.nyc.gov/Academics/ELL/EducatorResources/Common+Core+Lear ning+Standards+for+Mathematics+Sample+Units+that+Support+English+Langu age+Learners.htm)

New York State Education Department (2009): English as a Second Language: Elementary grades 2-4 (accessed at http://www.p12.nysed.gov/biling/resource/ESL/03Elem.pdf) US Education Department (accessed at http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/beginning.html)

US Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (accessed at http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/about/history/CivilRightsAct.cfm)