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Just Talk with Patricia Gándara

Just Talk: Voices of Education and Justice

Just News from Center X is happy to introduce a new feature.  JUST TALK:  Voices of Education and Justice presents interviews with educators, students, researchers, elected officials, and community activists.  Just Talk will appear twice a month throughout the school year.     

In this week’s Just Talk, Center X faculty director John Rogers interviews Patricia Gándara about bilingual education.  Patricia Gándara is Research Professor and Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. She is also Chair of the Working Group on Education for the University of California-Mexico Initiative. In 2011 Professor Gándara was appointed to President Obama’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, and in 2015 she received the Distinguished Career Award from the Scholars of Color Committee of the American Educational Research Association.

John Rogers:  Let’s begin with some definitions.  What are bilingual education programs and what are dual immersion programs? 

Patricia Gándara:  Bilingual education has grown up over the decades as a program dedicated to English Learners. Many people use it as a term that encompasses any kind of program that is focused on helping English Learners become English speakers, which includes programs that include no primary language at all, just English. The clearer, better definition of it is a program that uses the primary language to help students become English speakers and in some cases, fully bilingual and bi-literate. There's such a thing as transitional bilingual education, which usually ends primary language instruction around the third grade and does not try to develop strong literacy, but rather conditional transitional literacy. Then there are developmental bilingual education programs that try to build literacy in both of those languages, and they end wherever the resources end.

Two way dual language programs are both for English Learners and English speakers, and can go—and optimally should go—all the way through the student's education until graduation.  The best model, the one that seems to get the best outcomes, actually starts with ninety percent of what we call the target language, which is the native language of half of the students, until it shifts over somewhere in mid-primary school to about half and half. The whole goal of this is strong literacy for all students in at least two languages.

I will add to that that another benefit of this kind of program is that it integrates kids who are English Learners and kids who are often times segregated in communities and schools where they don't have much access to English Learners. It has a benefit beyond the linguistic benefit, which we think is important. Most programs in California focus on Spanish and English, but we do have a lot of other languages represented.

What are some of the other languages, other than Spanish, that are most commonly found in California schools?

The most common ones are Mandarin, Korean, and in the Los Angeles area, Armenian.

What do we know about how many students in California are presently are enrolled in bilingual education programs?

I am told by the California Department of Education that they do not collect those data. My best estimate would be that somewhere between four and five percent of (English learners) are entering a bilingual program, based on my discussions with the California Department of Education.

How does bilingual education support student learning and development?

When children come to school, they come with a language. They're not “a-lingual.” They actually come with a language, a communication capacity, a vocabulary and with knowledge of the world that is framed in a language that they speak. These are all learning assets the children bring with them to school. When we attempt to do instruction in English-only, when that's not a language that they speak, we effectively just erase all of that and start at zero.

When we can capitalize on the language that the student already knows and all of the knowledge that was built in that framework, it just speeds up the child's ability to learn new material.  Time is a really, really precious resource, but especially for immigrant children or children who are coming from a different background. They've got so much to acquire in such little time that anything that we can do to build on what they already know and what they already have would make better use of that time.  Not only does it make sense, it actually results in different outcomes for the children. The kids who don't have to start at zero do better over the long run.

Are there certain characteristics of the highest quality bilingual education programs that you would point to as being critical for them to be successful?

I think the very first thing is the instruction needs to be rigorous, and it needs to be provided by a teacher who has a very strong command of the language. It's really important to have well-trained, bilingual teachers. We're not talking about a hugely expensive thing where it's two teachers instead of one. I think that's important to get across. One of the things that oftentimes gets raised is it's just too expensive, and that's just simply not the case.

What's core to that type of instructional knowledge really needs more research. I think this would be very helpful for us in creating the strongest kinds of programs, which typically have strong teachers, rigorous curriculum, and access to strong speakers of English.

The total instructional model needs to include real interaction with native English speakers, and part of this is modeling. Part of it is motivation, because the biggest motivation for learning to use language, from the time that we are babies, is the necessity and desire to communicate with people that we want to communicate with.  You have to have these kids in a situation in which there is a need and a desire to communicate with others in that language that they're learning.

Let’s talk about why all of this matters. Why should the broader California public care whether or not young people who start off in our school system become bilingual adults?

We're really behind most other developed countries. We have the great advantage that English is a world language, and it's the language of commerce, so it's very easy for us to sort of rest on that and say, well the rest of the world will come to us with their English skills. People forget that while the rest of the world is learning English, they're also learning other languages, and much of what happens in commerce and trade and international relations, and in every day interactions with other people, rests on their primary language.

Over the last twenty years, we've had an explosion of research in this area. We have studies now that are gold standard, randomized samples, longitudinal from kindergarten through high school. The studies we now have demonstrate firmly that kids who get access to one of these programs are going to have social, psychological, emotional, cognitive, academic and economic benefits.

We also have learned that the students who participate in a good bilingual program perform better in English. Not even taking into account that they have a whole other language and literacy and all these other assets, but they actually perform better in English than the kids who are treated as blank slates and have to start at zero learning English.

Some of the research that we've done, suggests very strongly that bilingualism offers real benefits.  Many people we’ve talked to say:  "That's fine, I'll do business with you in English, but if you speak my language, I'm going to care more about the business I do with you. I'm going to have a greater sense that you care about me, and you know something about me that I don't have to explain right off."  I think that's terribly important in all human interactions, whether in business or other kinds of relations. It really puts us at a disadvantage when we can't communicate with people in their language. When you consider the hemisphere that we live in, bilingualism is going to continue to play a greater and greater role in our lives and our economies.  In the Western Hemisphere that is, most of the people speak Spanish. To be able to speak in their language is a huge asset. This is not to discount the importance of speaking other languages, like Mandarin for example. Really, if we can finally get to bilingual education, maybe we can (get to) trilingual education as well.

There's decades of research that shows that the first generation who come from some place else primarily speaks the language from where they come. The second-generation understand their parents, because this is the language of the home.  But for the most part, the second generation has not developed academic literacy in that language. They're able to communicate, but they're not able to do it at a level that would create a real asset for them in the labor market. We have found that employers are more likely to pay for literacy in that other language. By the third generation, it's gone. It's just gone. We have a short window of time to take advantage of the linguistic resources that we have. As we've If we fiddle around trying to decide whether or not to train bilingual teachers, we will lose an asset for generations.

What state and district policies are then needed in order to support the development of bilingual adults and hence, support bilingual education?

We need teacher policy in this state and in this country that focuses on those young people that have this growing asset and really makes it attractive for them to become bilingual teachers. Biliteracy is something that does appeal to people. They know that there is a great advantage to this, and an awful lot of educated people in the middle class want it for their kids, whether they're monolingual or not.

We just don't currently have the teachers to mount these programs, so for me that's absolutely the most important thing. If you want to provide an English-only program in your school or in your district, fine. If that's what people want, but do it with bilingual teachers. This is just absolutely essential to me. Of course, one of the policies that we had before NCLB was federal funding to help train the people within our Institutions of Higher Education who would be the teachers of these teachers. The problem is, it's pretty evident to everyone that we need more of these kinds of teachers, but where do they come from if you don't have the faculty in the Institutions of Higher Education to train them? We really need federal policy, as well as state policy, to provide funding and support for those individuals who will become the teachers of bilingual teachers.

There is an important bilingual education initiative on the California ballot this November.  What, if anything, would Proposition 58 change?   

Proposition 58 does not in any way reduce the importance of English. All that language about the critical importance of English, and all children needing access to a first-rate English education is still there. I've never known a responsible bilingual educator who didn't believe that from the very beginning. It’s not undoing anything like that. But Proposition 58 sends a message that we are no longer living in the last century. We've moved into the 21st century and we grew up. It says:  “Let’s communicate with our communities. Let's find out who wants to mount these bilingual education programs.” Proposition 58 makes it a whole lot easier for these communities to do just that.


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