The Obama Administration last week unveiled new federal policy recommendations that instruct states to support and encourage children to retain separate languages and cultural attachments. The policy was included in a joint policy statement by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services (HHS). The Administration stresses that these are mere recommendations that “do not confer any legal obligations,” but notes that failure to implement them may result in the loss of federal dollars.
The statements observe that there exists a “stubborn achievement gap” between dual-language learners (DLLs) and their monolingual counterparts. The former are “behind their peers” in kindergarten, and experience “higher high school and college drop-out rates.” However, the Administration cites “a growing body of research,” which it says indicates that multilingualism confers all sorts of “cognitive and social advantages.” The reason for the mismatch between the promised potential in the cited studies and the observed facts on the ground is due to “the quality of experience [the DLL children] are currently receiving,” it says. “Not recognizing children’s cultures and languages as assets may also play a role in the achievement gap” because of the “low social prestige of minority languages,” say the statements.
The Administration maintains that the solution is to preserve these differences and recommends that early childhood programs nurture the “cultural and linguistic assets of this population of children.” It advises that states follow this path by such approaches as creating curricula and educational early childhood systems that “support children’s home language development” as well as English, employing credentialed bilingual staff, and communicating with the family in their primary language. Kindergarten entry assessments must be “culturally appropriate” and administered by professionals who speak the children’s home language. To ensure that teachers are “linguistically and culturally responsive” the states are urged to collaborate with Hispanic-serving institutions, or universities that serve immigrants and their children. Tolerance of and respect for cultural differences is not enough, say the recommendations. Early childhood programs must “embrace and celebrate their diversity.”
The Administration identifies four types of classroom models: (1) Dual immersion, (2) native language with English support, (3) English with native-language support, and (4) English only. The Administration encourages No. 2 as “the most feasible in programs where most of the DLLs in a program speak a common language at home,” and discourages No. 4 because “DLLs are less likely to receive the benefits discussed above.” It cited as reasons for action high numbers of immigrants and a globalized world. “The growing diversity of our nation’s children requires that we shift the status quo.”
There are several problems with the Administration’s actions. Policy statements of this sort raise generalized concerns because they risk being coercive, and intrude into areas of primary state and local jurisdiction.
The Administration has no authority under the federal statutes governing education, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the implementing regulations, to require bilingual education or retention of “cultural assets.” Schools do have an obligation to teach English to students with limited English proficiency, but there is no requirement that they also be taught in their original home language. The Administration’s arguments are also commonplace contentions trotted out to support multicultural policies in general.
The United States is no stranger to immigration, and saw higher numbers of foreign-born in past centuries, but always dealt with it in a way that was more inclusive than what the administration proposes today: it encouraged immigrants to feel as though they were natives. With this initiative, the President moves the country further still away from the Founders’ vision of E Pluribus Unum, their concept that out of many peoples would emerge a new unified nation with one national identity.
That vision that immigrants were welcome but were expected to assimilate was applied by American leaders at every level, especially at the school house, where minds are formed and affections kindled. The elites, however, began to reverse this vision and instituted the opposite policy of perpetuating ethnic differences—the multicultural approach the Administration furthers with this policy statement.
The Administration relies heavily on research on the advantages conferred on the brain by learning more than one language from birth, while stubbornly ignoring the comparative poor performance of DLLs cited by its own reports. Numerous studies indicate that it is English proficiency that is strongly correlated with education, higher income, and assimilation.
More troubling, it disregards a whole field of academic research that points to the dangers of stratifying nations along ethnic lines. It lectures Americans that “over half the world’s population is estimated to be bilingual or multilingual,” but says nothing of evidence that linguistic fractionalization leads to lower economic and cultural indicators, never mind the dangers of ethnic strife.
The President is also rejecting liberal thinking over three centuries that has posited that ethnic and linguistic divisions bode ill for countries. More than a century ago, the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill warned that
free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country.
Closer to home, in 1991, the historian and eminent public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger, also a liberal, asked, “In the century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question: What is it that holds a nation together?” Schlesinger answered himself: “If separatist tendencies go on unchecked, the result can only be the fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life.”
Actions for Congress
- Call congressional hearings to probe the Administration’s actions. Congress has a role to play in preventing the resegregation of the country, to use Schlesinger’s term. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Workforce, as well as the relevant subcommittees that oversee education, bilingualism, and diversity should take a direct interest in the Administration’s recommendations.
- Ask congressional committees to clarify that states will not be penalized. Clarify (through statutory or report language) that states will not lose federal funding if they do not implement these recommendations. Clarify (through statutory or report language) that the federal government cannot mandate multilingual-education standards to states.
The Administration’s recommendation risks deepening cleavages in American society by perpetuating cultural splits. Its proposed action would not help promote the linguistic skill most highly correlated with success and assimilation in the U.S.: English-language proficiency.—Mike Gonzalez is a Senior Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.