January 1999 — Volume 3, Number 4
Bilingual Education: From Compensatory to Quality Schooling
María Estela Brisk (1998)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xx + 206
ISBN 0-8058-2495-2 (paper)
This book should be required reading in all teacher training programs, from elementary through post-secondary. It gives a good overview of the needs of bilingual students in the U.S. and of what is being done to serve these needs. Brisk explains the background as well as the current issues in the debate over bilingual education, and in the process presents powerful evidence for bilingual education by describing effective programs. She emphasizes that ideological attitudes must be set aside in order to focus on the real issue: how can bilingual and bicultural students be given a quality education, not simply a compensatory one (p. xix).
The primary audience for this book is teachers in public elementary and high schools, judging from the extensive examples cited. However, teachers entering any educational setting with students from differing cultures (and what educational situation today does not have such students?) can benefit greatly from the information assembled and explained in this work. “All students,” she states, “not only bilinguals, need to find balance in their quest to become global, preserving their own individual identity as well” (p. 163). This is a tall order, but a necessary one in the United States, and this book illustrates how this goal can actually be accomplished.
Bilingual Education: From Compensatory to Quality Schooling has two persistent themes: bilingual education works, although no program can be universal, and bilingual education is necessary for students to get a quality education. Brisk hits her themes hard, from the Introduction, a useful primer in the debate over how to define terms such as “bilingual,” right through the six chapters. In chapter 1, “Bilingual Education Debate,” Brisk lays out the complexities of the debate and brings us to the bottom line: “Unfortunately, languages become entangled in political battles, dragging the education and the future of innocent children into such conflicts” (p. 5). This first chapter also gives a concise outline of different models, such as structured immersion and transitional bilingual education, pointing out the goals and practices of each. Brisk emphasizes that the debate needs to get away from a focus simply on language issues: “The question that needs to be asked is what conditions create successful learning environments for language minority students” (p. 32). [-1-]
The subsequent chapters deal with how to create these conditions for successful learning. In “External and Internal Influences on Bilingual Students’ Education,” Brisk discusses the social, cultural, economic, and multitude of other factors that affect students. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 present excellent points to consider in “Creating a Good School,” “Creating Quality Curricula,” and “Creating Quality Instruction.” Each of these chapters is full of ideas and observations, encouraging practicing teachers to examine their own situations in a new light and giving strong guidance for teachers in training. Some of the issues discussed are the importance of high expectations, the role of the native language in different classes, assessment, and integrating bilingual students with the larger school community. More ideas for teaching are found in the appendix, but the author is careful to point out the importance of context for effective activities and programs. For example, on the issue of whether to accept multiple language varieties or to restrict usage to one variety in class, she says, “Both points of view are acceptable, depending on the circumstances” (p. 131). This kind of responsiveness to the situation is a hallmark of successful programs.
The final chapter, “Beyond the Debate,” brings to a head the author’s frustration with the current debate over bilingual education, a debate mired in issues of national language. She argues that students are being considered secondarily, if at all, by politicians and often by educators themselves. “The rising sense of frustration with public education has called into question our ability to educate our students,” she writes (p. 163). To build effective schools, we need to see what works: “Overreliance on particular models [of bilingual education] often detracts from analysis of what actually happens in schools” (p. 160).
In her preface, Brisk speaks of how “the pieces of the educational puzzle” are out there, if schools have the will to pull them together despite ideological pressures (p. xii). Good bilingual programs do exist; there are effective practices, as proven by research and experience. This book can go a long way towards helping educators bring these pieces together so that schools can create the effective bilingual education that this country needs to flourish in the next century.
Cumberland County College, New Jersey
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