Bilingual education and the role of minority-serving institutions

English language learners (ELLs) and immigrants are the fastest growing student population in the United States. Currently, there are over 5 million ELLs in public schools, and this number will only increase as Leos and Saavedra (2010) project that they will comprise one in four students nationally in 2020. Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Texas presently educate about 70% of the total ELL student population. Interestingly, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia are witnessing a rapid increase of over 200% in both ELL and immigrant student enrollment (Loes & Saavedra 2010).

Teacher education and certification programs are at the core of improving bilingual education.

Despite historic and far-reaching legal victories that proclaimed “language minority students may not be denied access to educational opportunities based on language or national origin,” language of instruction continues to be a significant educational roadblock for ELL and immigrant students (Loes & Saavedra 2010, 4-5). In order to address this disjuncture, educational programs that emphasize language of instruction must be established upon a solid foundation of educational theory, research, and practice, and implemented with adequate support, resources, and personnel if ELL and immigrant students are to meaningfully take advantage of their recognized yet not fully tangible legal gains. Furthermore, ELL and immigrant students are arguably one of the most disenfranchised student populations in US schools. According to García (2010), ELLs who enter Kindergarten with limited English proficiency are in the lowest performing quartile in 5th grade reading and math. The achievement gap continues to grow as ELL students have the highest secondary school dropout rates and alarmingly low college placement rates.

While there have been increased efforts to improve bilingual education, especially in elementary education where interventions are the most critical and can be the most effective, the task before us is still a difficult one. As renowned ELL scholar Eugene García notes:

Unfortunately, educational policy and practice discussions regarding the education of bilingual students are often overly simplistic and focus solely on linguistic deficiencies …. They tend to neglect the complex interweaving of students’ cultural, linguistic and cognitive development (García 2010, p. 6).

García further elaborates that teacher education and certification programs are at the core of improving bilingual education. We cannot develop a more comprehensive and effective approach to serving ELL students without teachers who understand the cultural nuances of immigrant populations. Teachers must also be willing to engage in new, innovative, and ultimately more effective practices that build on students’ strengths.  According to García, “A vast body of research has documented a direct link between ELL students achievement and the expertise and experience of the classroom teacher,” and that “To be effective, teachers must provide a classroom environment with ample opportunity for students to practice academic language thoughtfully and meaningfully” (García 2010, p. 8).

Kelly Salas, a former elementary teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools who now works for the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, warns that schools with high numbers of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students are more likely to encounter difficulties in filling teacher vacancies and mostly rely on under-qualified and substitute teachers. According to Salas, teachers in these schools are also “more likely to have provisional, emergency, or temporary certification than are those in other schools” (Salas 2014, 188).

The shortage of teachers who are qualified and prepared to teach ELL and LEP students led Garcia to ask critical questions: “Do teachers have at least three years of experience teaching ELLs? Do they use instructional strategies that are specifically responsive to students acquiring English in academic contexts?  Do they receive the continuous professional development and classroom related support they need to determine the effect their instruction has on student outcomes. Are they given the support they need to use regular authentic assessments of student achievement to assess their impact?” (García, 2010, pp. 8-9).

To answer these important questions, it is significant that over 70% of all bachelor degrees awarded in bicultural/multilingual/cultural education hail from Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). This is but one example of how MSIs are paving the way for others to learn from and participate in more multifaceted and asset-oriented approaches to teaching ELL students.

An example can found in the teacher education program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), which graduates over 50% of bicultural, multilingual, and cultural education teachers at MSIs. According to its College of Education’s mission statement:

Located in the bicultural, bilingual, and bi-national context of the border, the Department of Teacher Education seeks to prepare teachers and researchers who critically analyze educational practices in light of our diverse community and who can understand global issues in education. Highlights of our programs are the University’s unique location on the U.S.-Mexico border and faculty with expertise in preparing teachers and researchers to work with Latino/as and English Language Learners.

UTEP is notable in that it engages in strong partnerships and ongoing service to community organizations and schools, including:

  • Pro bono consulting to AVANCE of El Paso, to assist with the implementation of their family literacy program;
  • Faculty facilitated establishment of a bilingual distance education program;
  • Faculty-assisted curriculum development, parent power nights, and weekly literacy workshops at local schools;
  • Library donations and reading tutorials with students from homeless shelters; and
  • A yearly summer camp, TExPREP that involves about 300 middle school students from local schools.

These kinds of programs empower faculty to conduct cutting-edge research on language learning, bilugualism, international curricular issues, and immigrant education, which includes a recently awarded $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for Project LEAD (Leadership in English Acquisition, Academic Achievement and Development). Project LEAD is a five-year collaboration between UTEP and the Socorro Independent School District (SISD) to improve and expand the knowledge of teachers who work with English language learners. Faculty at UTEP offer professional development, tutoring and mentors to SISD high schools and their feeder schools, as well as funding for participants to get ESL certificates, and for graduate students and teachers to earn advanced degrees in bilingual/biliteracy and second language acquisition.

Another MSI that is actively engaged in bilingual education is California State University, Fresno, which has developed a Mini Corps program that recruits university students familiar with migrant populations and prepares them to help classroom teachers in providing services to migrant children. Students interested in becoming teachers in migrant communities receive training, mentoring, advising, and financial support. In the 2013-14 school year, 48 undergraduate students provided tutoring and mentoring to 680 K-12 migrant students, and worked collaboratively with 113 classroom teachers across 39 schools in Fresno County. Fresno State also offers a Reading Laboratory with literacy tutoring services for struggling school-age children from the community, summer writing programs and camps for local children, a family literacy program for parents and students, and a collaboration with a local Hispanic radio channel that disseminates information about their programs to potential teachers.

These are just a few examples of what MSIs are accomplishing in the field of bicultural, multilingual, and cultural education. As Salas reminds us: “All children need to learn how to communicate with people whose language and culture are different from their own.  These abilities are highly values, and many teenagers and adults spend years trying to develop them.  Children who are raised from birth speaking a language other than English have a unique opportunity to cultivate these abilities from a young age.  Our schools must help them seize that opportunity” (Salas, 2014, p. 189).


Loes, K. & Saavedra, L. (2010). A new vision to increase the academic achievement for English language learners and immigrant students. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

García, E. (2010). Education and achievement: A focus on Latino “immigrant” children. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Salas, K. (2014). Defending bilingual education. In W. Au (Ed.), Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice (pp. 183-189). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

MARYBETH GASMAN ( is a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, Philadelphia, Penn., where she also directs the Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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