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Summary Article: Bilingual Education
From Encyclopedia of Education Economics and Finance

Bilingual education is commonly defined as instruction provided in two languages. However, this simple definition is misleading since the concept of bilingual education is much more complex. For example, bilingual education may target English Language Learners (ELLs) and/or native English speakers. Moreover, the goal of the bilingual programs varies depending on the instructional model. This entry focuses on bilingual education in K-12 schools within the United States. The topic of bilingual education is particularly relevant to education economics and finance when considering funding implications of providing bilingual education to ELLs. Bilingual programs primarily serve ELLs, thus the federal government and most states allocate additional funding to serve the needs of this growing student population. This entry begins with a brief history of bilingual education outlining four major periods of bilingual education from the 1700s to the present. Then it describes several pedagogical approaches used in bilingual education and their effectiveness. Finally, the entry examines the financing implications of bilingual education at both the federal and state levels.

History of Bilingual Education

The scholarly literature suggests that there have been four major periods of bilingual education in the United States: (1) permissive period (1700s–1880s), (2) restrictive period (1880s–1960s), (3) opportunist period (1960s–1980s), and (4) dismissive period (1980s to the present). A very brief synopsis of each period is provided.

Permissive Period (1700s–1880s). The permissive period began in the 1700s when early European immigration was at its peak. The attitude of most immigrants and nonimmigrants alike was open-minded to allow linguistic and cultural preservation through cultural enclaves. Moreover, limited informal bilingual education programs were offered in local communities that had a large number of immigrants (e.g., Germans, Italians). However, the majority of schools still used English as the sole language of instruction.

Restrictive Period (1880s–1960s). The restrictive period implemented repressive language policies directed toward most immigrant and ethnic minorities. For example, many Native Americans were forced into boarding schools, the use of German was repressed due to World War I, and Japanese internment camps were established during World War II. The factors of nationalism and urban ethnic immigrant poverty spurred nativist policies to “Americanize” ethnic and immigrant children.

Opportunist Period (1960s–1980s). The opportunist period was initiated by the Cold War and contemporary immigration policy. Competition with the Soviet Union for global influence led to efforts by the United States to win over populations in countries across the world. Therefore, federal funds were allocated to teach and learn a second language as a national defense priority. Second, the Immigration Act of 1965 eliminated the national origin quota system; thus, many immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries immigrated to the United States. Consequently, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 formalized bilingual education at the federal level to serve this growing immigrant population.

Dismissive Period (1980s to the Present). The dismissive period began in the 1980s and continues today. The dismissive period directly affected the progress made during the opportunist period. For example, federal bilingual education funds began to be diverted to English-only approaches during the Reagan administration. Moreover, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 shifted federal policy from supporting transitional bilingual education to English-only approaches. At the state level, several states have passed antibilingual education initiatives (e.g., California, Arizona, and Massachusetts).

Pedagogical Approaches to Bilingual Education

There are primarily four different types of bilingual education programs identified in the literature. Each pedagogical approach is distinct due to the target population, language usage, program length, and goal(s). These programs are the following:

Structured English Immersion Program. This program is designed for ELLs of all ages. All student instruction is in English. The teacher promotes English comprehension through the use of second language acquisition strategies. Students are in an immersion program for 1 to 3 years. The goal of the English immersion program is monolingualism—to acquire English.

Transitional Program. This program is designed for ELLs in the early grades, K-3 usually. Both the native language and English are used for instruction. The native language is used more frequently in K-1 grades to help students learn content as they acquire English. Each year, less native language is used until students are “transitioned” to English only by the end of the second or third grade. After exiting the program, they are placed into mainstream English classes. The goal of the transitional program is monolingualism—to acquire English.

Maintenance Program. This program is designed for ELLs in Grades K-6. Both native language and English are used for instruction. In this program, a student's native language is predominant in the early grades, then English use is increased every year until students are taught approximately 70% of the time in English and 30% of the time in their native language. Apart from the length of the program, there is one other fundamental difference between this method and the transitional program. The goal of the maintenance program is bilingualism—to acquire both English and the native language.

Dual-Language Program. This program is designed to serve two types of students: (1) native English-speaking students and (2) ELLs in Grades K-6. Similar to the maintenance program, English is only taught minimally in the early grades, with instruction in English increasing every year until the fifth or sixth grade, when English is taught up to 50% of the time. The goal of the dual-language program is bilingualism for both groups. The native English speakers will learn a second language in addition to English and ELLs will acquire English as well as their native language.

There has been intense debate about the effectiveness of bilingual education, especially for ELLs, over the past five decades. Empirical research clearly shows the benefits of bilingual education, especially in dual-language and maintenance models. Large-scale longitudinal studies and meta-analyses conducted in the past 30 years show that, at a minimum, ELLs do as well in bilingual education programs as their peers in mainstream English programs. But most studies suggest a small to moderate positive difference in academic achievement in reading for ELLs enrolled in bilingual programs. Nevertheless, bilingual education is typically seen through a political lens, causing debate and controversy even when the research shows that bilingual programs work. The bilingual education debate is many times intertwined with the immigration debate, thus provoking strong emotional reactions that interfere with focusing on the empirical evidence. Voters in several states have passed antibilingual education initiatives; Arizona banned it, while California and Massachusetts severely restricted it in favor of teaching ELLs in English-only classrooms.

Funding for Bilingual Education and ELL

Although bilingual education has been part of the United States since its inception, it was not formalized until 1968 when Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Bilingual Education Act, was enacted. Soon afterward, states began to pass legislation to provide additional funding for bilingual education and/or students learning English as a second language. This section details federal- and state-level funding for bilingual education.

Federal Funding

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 earmarked federal funds for the first time for programs serving ELLs. During the initial year, the Bilingual Education Act provided $7.5 million to fund 76 programs across the country. The funding encouraged instruction in English and multicultural awareness. The Bilingual Education Act did not mandate bilingual education but instead allowed districts to develop bilingual programs. The federal government's official policy supported a transitional bilingual education model. Only after Lau v. Nichols (1974), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that limited-English-proficient students were not receiving an equal education unless districts took steps to correct their language deficiencies, did support and funding for bilingual education begin to significantly increase. Then, the Reagan administration began to decentralize government, including education, in the early 1980s, significantly decreasing the federal funds allocated for bilingual programs. Reagan federalism gave more administrative powers to the states, therefore curtailing any national movement for bilingual education and other federal educational programs. Another significant change occurred with Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which took the place of Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and promoted English-only approaches while restricting federal funding designated for bilingual education with instruction in students’ primary language. In 2005, 40 states still had bilingual education programs that used students’ native language and English, with the rest offering some type of English-as-a-second-language instructional program.

State Funding

After the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, some states began to pass their own bilingual education acts to provide additional revenue to support bilingual education. As of 2013, 37 states provided some additional funding to serve ELLs, primarily through a student-adjusted weight, in which ELLs count as more than one child for the purposes of funding, embedded in the basic school funding formula and/or supplemental grants. However, each state handles its funding allocation differently. For example, Texas has a pupil funding weight of .10 (representing a percentage of extra funding, in this case 10% additional funding for each ELL student) for ELLs enrolled in special language programs, including bilingual programs. Consequently, ELLs not enrolled in these programs do not receive funding. Overall, the cost study literature suggests that states are not adequately funding programs to help ELLs reach grade-level proficiency on standardized tests. In fact, funding is based more on political and budgetary considerations than on actual costs needed to fund bilingual education or support ELLs to meet state standards. In other words, the funding allocated to serve ELLs in bilingual programs or other programs is not based on the available evidence from cost studies but instead based on the overall amount of revenue available for education, and the share of that devoted ELL programs, which is determined by a state's legislature, and political negotiations.


Bilingual education, and the primary target student group it serves (ELLs), is an important concept in education finance due to the long history of immigration in the United States. In addition, ELLs are one of the fastest growing K-12 student populations, yet one of the lowest performing. The education and academic performance of ELLs has significant long-term implications for the finances of the United States and its economic development. It is important to determine the best ways to design and fund education for ELLs in bilingual and nonbilingual settings in order to maximize this population's human resource potential.

See also Categorical Grants; Elementary and Secondary Education Act; Pupil Weights; Supplemental Educational Services; Vertical Equity

Further Readings
  • August, D.; Hakuta, K. (Eds.). (1997). Improving schooling for language minority children: A research agenda. National Research Council, Institute of Medicine Washington, DC.
  • Baker, C.; Jones, S. P. (1998). Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education. Multilingual Matters Clevedon UK.
  • Crawford, J. (1999). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory, and practice (4th ed.). Bilingual Education Services Los Angeles CA.
  • Jimenez-Castellanos, O. (2010). School finance and English Language Learners: A legislative perspective. Association of Mexican-American Educators (AMAE) Journal, 3(1), 12-21.
  • Jimenez-Castellanos, O.; Topper, A. (2012). The cost of providing an adequate education to English Language Learners: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 82(2), 179-232. doi:10.3102/0034654312449872.
  • Lau v. Nichols, 483 F.2d 791 (9th Cir. 1973); 414 U.S.563 (1974).
  • Ovando, C. (2003). Bilingual education in the United States: Historical development and current issues. Bilingual Research Journal, 27(1), 1-24.
  • Verstegen, D.; Jordan, T. (2009). A fifty-state survey of school finance policies and programs: An overview. Journal of Education Finance, 3(34), 213-230.
  • Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos
    M. Najeeb Shafiq
    © 2014 SAGE Publications, Inc

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