Since it began to shape up around 1850, both in the USA and in Spain, Public Education has been the most important democratizing force and the most powerful socioeconomic equalizer in the history of these two countries. Once it got started, its first important challenge was becoming completely free and truly universal. It hasn’t been an easy task. Getting that accomplished entails a serious social effort and an enormous government investment. In exchange, though, Public Education has provided both countries with great doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and, above all, with great law abiding citizens, people who understood that differences should be solved through dialogue and respect. Public Education has mainly brought about harmony, peace, progress and beauty to our societies.
The contents that should be taught at school have always been discussed and argued about. Old plans tended to concentrate on teaching the kids as many facts and data as possible: students should learn how to spell correctly; they should study the capitals of the world, all the rivers and their tributaries, every single important date in history, multiplication tables… Those plans seemed to work well for our new industrial societies and the children who were not good at school still had a good opportunity in life by working in a manual trade.
The end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century brought three new challenges to our Public Education systems. For starters, enjoying a true universal Public Education system means having a big portion of kids at school who are not good at learning all the information taught through the old plans. Besides, our post-industrial societies don’t make it easy for students to drop out of school and learn a manual trade any more. There are not enough of such jobs. Enjoying a true universal Public Education system also entails accepting lots of kids with a limited (or none whatsoever) command of the English language, in the case of the United States. We are talking about the fastest growing population. We are talking about 1 every 9 students in 2008; but the US Census predicts that they will make up 40% of the school population by 2030.
The second new challenge brought some solutions for the first one: the presence of computers and all kinds of electronic devices in every nook and cranny of our current lives makes it easy for the students. They no longer need to memorize all the information, they can quickly find it in their screens; word processing programs correct their spelling for them and calculators take seconds to find the most difficult square root. It will no longer be necessary to study all the contents by heart. It was not all that useful for most students, anyway, since most of the memorized lessons were soon forgotten. However, students must now be trained to become computer literate. They have to be taught how to tap all that information from the right sources.
What should we teach our students then if we want them to (1) lead a successful life (whatever they decide “successful” means) and (2) take care of us when we get the chance to retire? If contents seem to be easily forgotten and they can quickly be found on the Internet, if students are not likely to work on many factory lines in the future, if the future citizens are likely to move around the world and the world markets in the same way the previous generations moved around their country, it makes sense that the 21st century Public Education systems leave most contents aside and concentrate on developing the right skills in the students. Most skills are likely to remain with us all our lives: tying our shoelaces, using cutlery and scissors, typing, riding a bike, swimming, listening to others, taking turns when discussing with others, working in teams, critical thinking, using your imagination, respecting others’ opinions, playing a musical instrument… All those above are very important skills to be learned.
Raising our kids to be bilingual might be one of the best skills we can teach them from a very early age. Raising our kids to be bilingual and to create a bilingual and multicultural society can help us to live in a better world since learning other languages and about other cultures raises people’s awareness about the others. Raising our kids to be bilingual can help students who start school with a poor command of English to succeed academically and therefore professionally. Raising our kids to be bilingual will help our children to compete in the world markets of the future.
Neither Spain nor the States have a great reputation for learning foreign languages. In Spain, since English has become an international language, Spaniards have been making a great effort to learn this language. First there was a transition, since French used to be the foreign language everybody studied in Spain up to the early 1980s. Once English became the most popular foreign language in Spain, until the 21st Century, students studied mainly grammar and vocabulary and the listening comprehension skill and the oral expression skill were rarely taught at school. Every generation has proven to have a better command of English than the previous ones but there is still a long way to go if we compare ourselves to many European countries. At the turn of the century, most Comunidades Autónomas (the regional governments upon which Public Education depends) started Escuelas bilingües (bilingual schools) in their territories. At these schools, English was taught or used as the primary language to teach other content subjects during nearly 50% of the school time. Then secondary school Escuelas bilingües were created so that students could keep learning English (and in English) up to their senior year in high school.
Escuelas bilingües are normally popular in the community and they soon get very high enrolment rates. Public schools could become Escuelas bilingües if their School Board decided so. The school faculty normally has control over the school board so it is the faculties that normally make such important decision. If the faculty of a school has a large number of veteran teachers who studied French when they were younger, for example, it won’t be easy for a school to become an Escuela bilingüe. Once the school decides to become bilingual, the school administration has to send an application to the regional government. If the application deadlines are met, the regional government will be likely to accept the application and that school will begin as an Escuela bilingüe the following academic year. If teachers wish to participate in the bilingual program of that school, they will need to have the right University degree or they will need to get the bilingual endorsement (acreditación bilingüe). They are normally required to have a B2 level of proficiency in English, which is not so easy for many teachers to achieve at the moment.
Elementary Escuelas bilingües don’t usually have a non-bilingual strand; as a result, if students start in one of these schools and they decide that they don’t want to continue in a bilingual class, they have to change school to do so. In the Secondary school Escuelas bilingües there are normally two strands, a bilingual one and a non-bilingual one. A ‘tracking effect’ sometimes takes place at this level and the most successful students tend to end up in the bilingual strand whereas the ones who are not so successful tend to go to the non-bilingual strand. ‘Tracking’ has seldom proven to be positive for students.
In the United States, Bilingual Education has become a negative term over the years. Many people, including educators, have associated the word “bilingual” with those students who have a limited command of English and the main goal of bilingual education has become to teach English to those students. If those students lost their mother tongue while learning English seemed quite convenient for many people. These educational trends have proven fatal to many US students, who, as a result, have dropped out of school or have failed to meet the high school graduation requirements.
It was observed that if you teach a kid in a language which is not same as the one they speak at home, their cognitive, linguistic and academic development is interrupted and therefore, they fall behind and they are not likely to catch up with the norm group during the following school years. After some research, some Canadian schools started Dual Immersion programs, in which students were instructed in two languages throughout their elementary education. Some schools in the US decided to follow the Canadian example. It seemed to work well with the students with limited English proficiency. In the schools where there was a large population with the same language (Spanish, for example), students would start Kindergarten receiving 90% of the instruction in Spanish and 10% in English. The following year it would be 80% and 20%. The following year would be 70% and 30% respectively. The students would finish their elementary school receiving 50% of the instruction in English and 50% in Spanish. That way, their cognitive, linguistic and academic development wouldn’t be interrupted and students in these programs end up getting better results than the norm group. Some other schools just have a 50-50 model in which students receive 50% in English from the very first year.
Dual Immersion programs can be one way or two ways. One-way programs are the ones in which all the students, or most of them, speak the same language. Two-way programs are the ones in which you have a nice share of students whose home language is one of the two languages of the program and another nice share of students who speak the other language. You can have one-way programs in schools in which most students are Spanish speaking or in schools in which most students are English speaking. Two-way programs are much more interesting and successful. If the program is, for example, with Chinese and English, the Chinese speaking children will be the models for the English speaking kids and viceversa.
Dual Immersion programs are very popular in Texas, New Mexico and California but they are rapidly spreading all over the States. School districts normally have the power to decide if they wish to create Dual Immersion programs in their schools. Financing, personnel administration, curricula creation, the bad reputation of bilingual education in the States and national and local politics are normally the main obstacles a school has to overcome in order to make their Dual Immersion programs successful. Finding teachers with the appropriate certification is not easy, either. Many teachers have a good command of the second language but they don’t know how to teach content areas and content areas teachers don’t normally speak the second language well. Dual Immersion schools normally have two strands so children can choose to be part of the Dual Immersion program. Schools with Dual Immersion programs are more or less popular depending on how well they implement such programs.
Spanish Escuelas bilingües have programs and use many teaching techniques which are very similar to Dual Immersion programs. Dual Immersion programs are leading the way within Bilingual Education in the US and Spain. However, it is not only a matter of choosing these programs for our kids. It needs the support of the whole educational community. There must be a social demand for these models, there must be a strong institutional and governmental support, the curricula must be customized for every community, the right teachers and the right administrators must be hired. Teachers and administrators need a great deal of professional development courses. There should be a comprehensive follow up of the implemented programs and research on the topic should be an ongoing part of the process.
Dual immersion programs can be very successful. We are actually receiving outstanding results yet the challenges are not a few. Thus far, it seems that these models are quite solid in Elementary Education but there is still a long way to implement the right programs in Secondary school and in Higher Education. Funding is a key matter; believing in the programs and helping the rest of the community believe in them is another one. Both public and private education should embrace these programs so that our children can be raised in a bilingual and multicultural society.
If Public Education succeeds in this endeavour, this will help Public Education face the third challenge of the 21st Century: its own existence. In a time in which the efficiency of every public service is being questioned, proving that Public Education is successful might allow us and our next generations to enjoy such a democratic privilege.
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