America is a land of immigrants and has, therefore, always required bilingual education programs in some form or the other. In fact, bilingual education programs have existed in America since the late eighteenth century, when European immigrant children received educational instruction in their native languages. Recently, however, the issue of bilingual education appears to have grown somewhat contentious. This is evident by the initiatives taken by the States of California, Arizona, and Massachusetts to replace bilingual education with English immersion programs, and the likelihood of other States soon addressing the issue (Lipka, 2002). The move to replace bilingual education with English immersion programs is perhaps understandable in the light of mixed research findings on the efficacy of bilingual education (Rothstein, 1998). However, as this paper will demonstrate, there is a far stronger case to retain and persist with the system of bilingual education for pedagogical practice has now proved that instruction in children's native languages ultimately pays dividends in cognitive and academic skills. Further, it is also the objective of this paper to demonstrate that it is not the theory of bilingual education that is in doubt but perhaps the manner in which it is being implemented. Therefore, before throwing out the baby with the bathwater, perhaps what governmental and educational authorities need to do is conduct an exhaustive review of why the system of bilingual education in America has failed to live up to expectations.
Perhaps a good starting point to this discussion would be to establish the objective of the bilingual educational system in America: "...special effort to help immigrant children learn English so that they can do regular schoolwork with their English-speaking classmates and receive an equal educational opportunity." (Lipka, 2002) Thus, the concept of bilingual education in America was to teach children in their native language so that they could continue to learn subjects till such time that they were proficient enough in English to be absorbed into mainstream education. In addition, it was believed that teaching immigrants in their native language would help them value their family and community culture and thereby reinforce their self-esteem, which is an important factor in academic success (Rothstein, 1998). Unfortunately, it appears that many bilingual programs and educators may have become more concerned with teaching young immigrant children their native language and culture rather than with teaching them English so that they could be successfully absorbed into mainstream schools (Lipka, 2002). Thus, it is evident that many bilingual programs seem to have lost sight of the original objective and perhaps have become mired in ideological issues. As such, it is important that any review on the effectiveness of bilingual education stays focused on the original objective and desirability of such programs, and take care to delineate any ideological effect caused by cultural backgrounds.
Indeed, removing the effect of ideological issues will allow for a sharper analysis of the case for or against bilingual education, including a retracing of the reasons going in its favor such as the fact that the desirability of bilingual education has been repeatedly proven in a wide body of scholarly research. For one, there is the undeniable fact that children who receive educational instruction in a second language experience considerable difficulties in school of both an academic as well as a social acceptance and self-esteem nature. Secondly, as pointed out in a pioneering study by UNESCO, the fact is that the native language is the best medium for initial instruction as it is the primary medium through which a child learns about his or her cultural environment. This is an important consideration given the wide recognition today that a student's cultural background influences his or her cognitive and academic skills. Indeed, as Vygotsky pointed out in his sociocultural theory of learning, relating students' personal experiences to classroom content can, and does, facilitate better understanding of subject matter (Brisk, p. 1, 112).
Besides the UNESCO study and theoretical research, there is also recent research evidence that establishes the efficacy of certain bilingual education models. In fact, such research proves that "well-designed bilingual programs can produce high levels of school achievement over the long-term, at no cost to English acquisition, among students from disempowered groups." Thus, it appears that sacrificing Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students' native language is unnecessary to teach them effectively in English. Equally significant is the research finding that native language instruction can be helpful in overcoming other obstacles to academic achievement such as poverty, family illiteracy, and social stigmas attached to culture or minority status (Crawford, 1998).
Children are the future of any country. For a country such as America, which is a huge melting pot of people from different race and ethnic origins, it is critical that the issues faced by the children of its existing and new immigrant population be addressed if they are to grow up to be productive citizens in the future. One such issue is clearly that of social alienation and acceptance caused by language and culture differences. An anecdotal narrative of an immigrant student who was placed in an all-English classroom in a New York City public school, when she first came from Haiti, may help illustrate the importance of this point: "I also received English as a second language (ESL) instruction.... I did okay my first couple of years in school because my teacher knew some French. However, in seventh grade, I started having problems because my teachers understood nothing about my language or culture. I was really on my own because my English wasn't that great yet. I was terrified to speak in front of a group...the children laughed and made fun of me. Psychologically I was at a loss. I remember becoming very introverted." (Lemberger, p. 43) The psychological impact of such experiences can affect not just individual personality development but as is apparent in the preceding narrative, academic performance as well.
The discussion, thus far, has hopefully served to illustrate the fact that bilingual education is both a necessary and an important tool in bringing about quality education and high levels of academic achievement in America. The question, however, that remains to be addressed, is why bilingual education has failed to produce consistent results across the board. As Rothstein points out, "Bilingual education supporters may claim that it aims to teach English, but high dropout rates for immigrant children and low rates of transition to full English instruction prove that, even if educators' intentions are genuine, the program is a failure." (Rothstein, 1998) One reason for low efficacy rates, as seen earlier, is the ideological issue of encouraging children to learn their native language and culture as a priority over learning English and the mainstream culture of America. But there are several other, perhaps more far reaching, factors as well: "...multiplicity of factors that impact on the learning process -- the natural endowments of students, their social and cultural contexts, teaching approaches and styles, shifting goals and curricula, interactions between teachers and students and among students...." (Brisk, p. xi)
Thus, there are a host of factors that affect academic performance, which may just account for the mixed research findings on the effectiveness of bilingual education programs. Interestingly, the fact that a multitude of factors affect academic performance can also account for the reason why some LEP and ESL students do well in mainstream schools in spite of their disadvantages: "...students were recent immigrants from China, India, and Central America...families moved to offer their children a better education and better socioeconomic opportunities. Motivated by their hope for the future and a sense of duty to their parents...these students performed admirably in school." (Brisk, p. 34) As is evident in the cited example, family values and individual motivation resulted in these students overcoming language and cultural barriers and performing well. This is a very different picture from the argument presented by opponents to bilingual education that children, when immersed in English instruction, will be forced to sink or swim, and will choose to swim (Rothstein, 1998). Moreover, it must be noted that all LEP and ESL students may not have the advantage of cultural and family values that emphasize the importance of education. Such students will, therefore, perhaps not be motivated enough to overcome language and cultural barriers.
In addition to the factors mentioned so far, there is also some disturbing evidence that the failure of some bilingual education programs could well be attributed to a lack of support and commitment. Take, for instance, the experiences of Nancy Lemberger, a bilingual teacher: "When I started teaching, I had no idea that bilingual teaching was so controversial, stigmatized, and complex. For 6 years, I struggled as a Spanish-English bilingual elementary school teacher in Oakland, California...lack of support from my principal and colleagues...." (Lemberger, p. 1) Lemberger is not the only account of a failure of commitment and application affecting the efficacy of bilingual education. For other advocates of bilingual education too point out that many bilingual programs are substandard: "Rather than offering a blanket…