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Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960-2001

reviewed by Michael Genzuk - 2006

coverTitle: Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960-2001
Author(s): Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr.
Publisher: University of North Texas Press, Denton
ISBN: 1574411713, Pages: 168, Year: 2004
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In Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960-2001, University of Houston history professor Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr. provides a candid look at the emotionally charged and politically volatile history of bilingual education and the policy issues that have defined its implementation. San Miguel has produced a relatively complex book on the topic.  Readers hoping for a simple explanation of what is at stake will not find it; rather they will find a scholarly expose of the multi-faceted issues that define bilingual education and bilingual education policy. 

The author provides a review of both the history of federally mandated bilingual education, beginning in 1968 through its reauthorizations up to 2002, and the consequences of these programs. Professor San Miguel suggests that it has been one of the most contentious and misunderstood educational programs in the nation. He sees the changes in bilingual education as the result of several forces including litigation, legislation, changing political contexts, and activism on the part of adversarial groups with competing notions of ethnicity, assimilation, empowerment, and pedagogy. He further suggests that these opposing groups played a major role in the evolution of bilingual education policies and practice.

San Miguel provides an overview of these adversarial groups of supporters and opponents in bilingual education policy development. Among those favoring it are language specialists, Mexican American activists, civil rights advocates, professional educators, students, and others who were/are ideologically opposed to an assimilationist philosophy in schools and support of cultural and linguistic pluralism in school reform efforts. The opponents presented are just as widespread consisting of such groups as conservative journalists, politicians, Anglo parent groups and special interest groups such as U.S. English favoring assimilation, the exclusion of and discrimination against ethnic minorities, and limited school reform. A brief history of these opposing groups is also provided in the book.  

In a clear, accessible narrative the author identifies specific policy cycles that have shaped bilingual education. He begins with a description of the events and political climate leading to initial federal bilingual legislation resulting in the enactment of the federal Bilingual Education Act of 1968. He continues through the expansion of federal bilingual education and policy transformations in the late 1960’s and 1970’s including the landmark Lau v. Nichols unanimous Supreme Court decision, which ensures that non-English speaking students receive appropriate instruction in school. He follows with a brief but concise trip through the 1980’s and the emergence of opposition to bilingual education, highlighting the ideological and policy changes sought after, followed by an articulate description of the well-orchestrated attempts and eventual success at repeal of bilingual education by opponents in the early 2000’s. Discussion of two major strategies pursued by the opponents, an ideological one aimed at attacking the empirical basis of bilingual education and a political one of repealing or modifying federal bilingual education provide important insights into the debate.

San Miguel concludes that, with the expiration of the federal Bilingual Education Title VII legislation in January 2002, after several decades of attacking and undermining bilingual education policy, the bilingual education opponents finally succeeded in repealing bilingual education and replacing it with English-only policies. He further explains that during the discussed three and a half decades bilingual education policies changed largely as a result of political dissatisfaction and struggles between contending groups with competing notions of assimilation, ethnicity, pedagogy, and power. He suggests that clashes between different groups with contending views will continue to shape the content of language policies in the nation’s schools.

Additionally this book includes an extended bibliographic essay of sources written from 1960 to 2001. The essay discusses pertinent literature related to aspects of the above mentioned bilingual education policy cycles. The author offers these resources to support in-depth historical study of these important education and social policies.

An underlying message in this book is that the work of language minority education professionals and advocates is political work, a reality that most educators would prefer to avoid. Educators, parents, policy makers, and others concerned with the education of this ever increasing student population need to be able to understand language policy and learn to respond effectively in policy arenas. To this end, Contested Policy is a valuable book for any language minority education professional who desires a better understanding of the political nature and the ongoing debates surrounding language policy in the United States.

I found Contested Policy to be an excellent treatise that covers many of the topics needed in a foundations course for teachers who are working to obtain a Bilingual/ESL endorsement or as a valued addition to professional education libraries. The book covers the legal requirements for bilingual education, gives pertinent court cases that have impacted the education of language minority students, and provides a rather comprehensive history of bilingual education in the United States, a very important contribution for the next generation teacher candidates who may not have been exposed to the evolution and achievement of these programs and policies.

This is an important book that provides insights into the complex issues associated with bilingual education and the education of language minority populations. This insight is critical as there are few quality manuscripts that specifically explore the historical aspects of these issues and their impact on the nation’s growing language minority student population. I strongly recommend this book and have placed it as a supplement along side the acclaimed work of James Crawford (Crawford, 2004), and Joshua Fishman (Fishman, 1981).


Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English kearners: Language diversity in the classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).

Fishman, J.A. (1981). Language policy: Past, present, and future. In C.A. Ferguson & S.B. Heath (Eds.), Language in the U.S.A. (pp. 516-526). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 23-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11865, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:36:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Genzuk
    University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL GENZUK, Ph.D. is an Associate Clinical Professor of Education in the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education and the Co-Director of the School’s Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research at the University of Southern California. His research has focused on issues related to the academic achievement of language minority students, including cognitive growth, and psychosocial factors affecting their success, and teacher education programs that address the development of teachers for the changing demographic patterns in North American public schools. His most current work looks at methods to enhance and expand existing written literacy through still and moving images, aural communication, and multimedia applications as well as the written word.
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