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How Ideology and Cultural Capital Shape the Distribution of Illinois’ Bilingual Education Programs

by P. Zitlali Morales & Arthi B. Rao - September 28, 2015

In this commentary, the authors explain that, despite well-respected bilingual education policy, Illinois, like most of the U.S. has an inequitable distribution of dual immersion bilingual education programs. Such programs appear mostly in white, middle-class communities rather than in predominantly Latino ones. The authors argue that this inequity is driven by ideological and cultural capital differences among communities. They contend that these inequities must be addressed if more effective additive bilingual education models are to serve emergent bilingual students in the U.S.

This commentary uses the case of Illinois to show how hegemonic ideologies and cultural capital continue to drive language program offerings—even when language policy supports bilingual programs for emergent bilingual students. Language scholars note that the number of dual language programs is on the increase across the U.S. This is a positive trend—research favors additive bilingual programs that promote maintenance of the first language while learning a second (García, 2009; Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006; Goldenberg, 2008). Even in a state like Illinois with relatively progressive language policy, these programs are more likely to appear in majority White, middle-class, English dominant communities, while subtractive bilingual programs continue to dominate in lower socioeconomic, largely Spanish-speaking communities.


Illinois has had a long and consistent history of support for bilingual education programs. Even in the late 1990s, when states such as California, Arizona, and Massachusetts mandated English-only instruction in public schools, Illinois legislatures continued to recommend bilingual instruction to address emergent bilinguals’ academic and social needs (Gándara & Contreras, 2009; Hamilton & Krashen, 2006). Illinois law specifies that accommodations for emergent bilinguals include primary language instruction, one of the few states in the U.S. to require any native language instruction at all. Illinois demonstrates the potential to be the showcase of additive programs for emergent bilingual students—programs thought to be more effective because they help students add English to existing language knowledge rather than replace the first language.

Since 1973, legislation mandated that Illinois school districts offer transitional bilingual education (TBE) in schools with 20 or more emergent bilingual children who speak the same dominant language (Badillo, 2011; Illinois State Board of Education, 2011). As a result of this law, Illinois’ TBE programs generally provide primary language instruction to emergent bilinguals for three years—starting with kindergarten—and then transition them to English instruction around third grade. Despite research establishing that students benefit from a strong foundation in their first language, the general trend in Illinois is for bilingual programs to offer less primary language instruction and transition to English sooner.

Even though bilingual programs are often considered undesirable by the general public, the dual immersion model has become very popular across the U.S., including Illinois. In part, this is because they include English monolingual speakers and not just linguistic minorities. While this statewide push to increase bilingualism, even for native English speakers, is promising, this trend is primarily occurring in highly resourced communities, such as Schaumberg, Woodstock, Naperville, and Evanston. Programs that serve predominantly Latino students of Spanish-speaking backgrounds continue to largely be those that prioritize the acquisition of English over the development of multiple literacies and competencies.

Indeed, Valdés (1997) cautioned that dual immersion programs might actually benefit the dominant English-speaking population more than language minority students; adding fluency in another language to students who already have many advantages, exacerbating inequalities between different groups of students.


That dual language programs are located in high resourced, English majority areas can be explained by the dominant cultural hegemony, that is, the “system of ideas and social practices that helps maintain the domination of corporate and upper-class interests over those of the rest of the population” (Sehr, 1997, p. 17). Speaking English continues to be a symbolic marker of being “American,” despite the reality of incredible linguistic diversity within the U.S. These assimilative attitudes are instantiated in schools, the most important socializing institution in the U.S. (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008), where immigrants and other linguistically diverse groups are pressured to adopt the norms and practices of the dominant culture (Spring, 2012).

Historically, emergent bilinguals have been punished for using their first language in schools, and consequently experienced emotional instability and discord. Generations of immigrant children and families learned that it was necessary to abandon home culture and language, and assimilate to the established norm (Crawford, 1992; Ovando, Collier, & Combs, 2003; Spring, 2012). In the previous couple of decades, U.S. newcomers are assimilating more rapidly than ever before. After 15 years in the U.S., 75% of Latino immigrants are speaking English daily, and 70% of their children become dominant or monolingual in English (Crawford, 2004). Immigrant parents or families who live in ethnic enclaves sometimes believe that learning to speak English quickly is what is most important for their children, especially if they feel uncomfortable with the language themselves. Such parents opt for predominantly English instruction in schools, or are content with a model in which students transition relatively quickly to English only, despite the potential loss of the first language. Bilingualism for English-dominant children is valued, while bilingualism for minority-language children is discouraged (Dicker, 2003).


Parents with financial means are more likely to be educated and knowledgeable regarding the school system. Such parents often have the cultural capital—the cultural knowledge and background that is derived from their economic status in the dominant society—to recognize the advantages of bilingualism for their children. They also have the advocacy skills to request and pressure their school districts to provide these programs. By developing and expanding dual language programs in middle and upper-middle class suburbs, their children gain access to the cognitive, social, and economic benefits of becoming bilingual.

Comparatively speaking, families from lower socioeconomic statuses have less socially recognized cultural capital. Emergent bilinguals who are largely Latino, and who live in segregated sections of poor urban neighborhoods, may abandon their first language due in part to subtractive language program models available to them in the schools. Predominantly poor, Spanish-speaking parents may trust schools to do what is best or are positioned to be afraid of challenging established curriculum. By limiting Illinois’ lower-income Latino youth to TBE programs as described above, a socially-created hierarchy of social classes is perpetuated. Spanish-speaking parents may not be exposed to the research, or not be aware of the lack of program options in their communities. Even if linguistic minority parents do want their children to keep their first language or learn that dual immersion programs produce better results than TBE programs, they may not have the advocacy skills to which school districts are more likely to respond.


There is a clear paradox of bilingual programming in Illinois. While most bilingual programs are becoming weaker—in large part because of the mistaken idea that more time in English-only instruction results in increased performance in English—dual immersion programs are simultaneously on the rise. The increasing numbers of dual immersion programs in largely White, middle-class areas demonstrate that people—who have information about how effective dual immersion programs are—do choose to enroll their children in bilingual programs. Communities understand the research benefit from additive language practices for their communities.

Yet by comparison, providing transitional programs to the majority of emergent bilinguals in Illinois—in keeping with the letter of the law—perpetuates subtractive language practices for them, encouraging assimilation and loss of initial linguistic resources in the process. It is critical to help communities understand that they can choose to have their children retain their native language, while also learning English proficiently. This will benefit them in the long run.

Illinois could build on the state’s rich history of bilingual education and immigration, and take advantage of the statewide language policies already in place. Valdés’ (1997) warning about dual language programs was prescient, but may still be heeded. For Spanish-speaking Latino students, dual immersion programs that allow them to add English language proficiency while also developing their academic Spanish, could be a potential resource for the whole state and nation. Considering the number of Latinos living in Illinois, it is worth examining how the school system is building on their assets, and moving all students towards developing 21st century literacies, including multilingualism. There is some evidence of this type of forward thinking, such as a legislative move towards establishing a Seal of Biliteracy that would be placed on diplomas of high school graduates who demonstrate proficiency of two languages on state-specified examinations.1

The lesson for those outside of Illinois is this—even in a state with relatively progressive language education policies, ideology and cultural capital can cause inequitable enactment of well-intended policy. To disregard research concerning what is best for emergent bilinguals is to limit the potential of emergent bilingual students’ achievement and increase inequities by adding privilege to already dominant groups.


1. Illinois is the third of three states (following California and New York) to offer a seal of biliteracy. Illinois lawmakers approved a seal of biliteracy bill in July of 2013 (http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocNum=1221&GAID=12&DocTypeID=SB&



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 28, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18139, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:09:00 AM

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