The Great Divide Between Federal Education Policy and Our National Need for Bilingual Citizens

by Wayne E. Wright
University of Texas at San Antonio

In the United States, there is a great divide at the federal level between education policy and the national need for bilingual citizens. The federal government is painfully aware of its lack of bilingual employees. The National Security Education Program (NSEP) (2001a) in an analysis of federal language needs—conducted the same year as the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—found that difficulty in hiring bilingual candidates at 80 national-security-related federal agencies led to adverse impacts on operations. The NSEP also found unmet language needs in other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Customs Service, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard. We also lack bilingual citizens to fulfill the myriad jobs in the service, business, and education sectors to interact with immigrants, international tourists, and other visitors, and to help ensure American success in international relations and global business.

Later in 2001, at the NSEP National Briefing on Language and National Security, speaker after speaker across federal agencies testified of the urgency to increase the country’s foreign language expertise. Richard Brecht, the Director of the National Foreign Language Center, testified, “the U.S. government’s language capabilities remain grossly inadequate. …. We need more linguists in more languages at higher levels of proficiency than ever before.” He recommended a long-term strategy which included the mandate that “government language schools recruit from the education system and the U.S. heritage communities linguistically competent professionals with existing skills that can be enhanced and specialized to meet required federal tasks.” (p. 20)

Regarding Brecht’s comment on the need to recruit from K-12 schools and from heritage language communities in the United States, Stephanie Van Reigersberg, a former recruiter of interpreters for the State Department, made a telling comment about her frustrations trying to recruit “heritage speakers” in languages of great need. She testified:

I think that as I look back on the last 30 years of testing interpreter candidates, it’s very clear to me that the attempt made in our private and public schools to annihilate any knowledge of the language spoken at home has been very successful, and I think we’ve got to overcome that. (p. 29)

Over a decade later, little progress has been made. Ironically, at a time when these hearings on the need for bilingual citizens were taking place, federal education policy moved in the opposite direction with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2000. Congress eliminated the Bilingual Education Act, and removed the word “bilingual” from the text of federal education law along with all recognitions of the individual and societal values of bilingualism.

While bilingual and other heritage language programs are still allowed, there is no longer any direct federal support or encouragement for these types of programs. Furthermore, NCLB’s focus on high-stakes testing as the sole measure of student achievement, and teacher and school quality, has discouraged schools from offering such programs (Wright, 2007, pp. 1-26). As the vast majority of language minority students are required to take these tests only in English, narrow test-preparation curriculum is focused on both the content and language of the test. When the top priority of schools is raising their average test scores to avoid harsh accountability penalties, school leaders may view heritage language programs as unnecessary and as diverting time and resources away from this goal.

When President Barack Obama was sworn into office in 2009, there was great hope among language minority advocates for change that would create more space for quality heritage language programs. The administration has appeared open and supportive of such programs. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in a May 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, made the following comments:

We also support innovative approaches to language learning and proficiency assessment through our network of Language Resource Centers. Just one example is the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. They sponsored their first international conference on heritage and community languages last February. The millions of heritage language speakers at varying levels of language proficiency in the U.S. represent a tremendous reserve of students and potential teachers who can put their skills to work improving our cultural understanding as well as our ability to compete, collaborate, preserve national security, and advance international peacekeeping efforts.

Statements such as these are a positive sign, as is the apparent support for bilingual education in an early draft of the Obama Administration’s proposals for the re-authorization of NCLB. However, the focus on accountability through high-stakes testing has not only remained, but has gotten worse. A key element of the administration’s school reform efforts through initiatives such as Race to the Top is tying teacher performance evaluation to their students’ test scores, thus making the stakes and the pressure to raise language minority student test scores higher than ever before.

As long as high-stakes tests remain the sole indicator of student achievement and school and teacher quality, there will be little incentive for schools to promote heritage language programs. A multiple-measurement system is needed where test scores are but one factor among many in determining school quality. Such a system could rectify the great divide at the federal level by recognizing and rewarding schools with quality heritage language programs—programs which ensure our nation will have the bilingual citizens it desperately needs.

Dr. Wayne E. Wright is an Associate Professor in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas, San Antonio and the author of Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice (

A lengthier critique by Dr. Wright on the effects of NCLB and its emphasis on testing for English Language Learners can be found here in the publication Educational Leadership.


Duncan, A. (2010). International Engagement Through Education: Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Council on Foreign Relations Meeting, May 26, 2010. Retrieved from
National Security Education Program. (2001). Analysis of federal language needs. Retrieved March 14, 2006, from
National Security Education Program. (2002). National briefing on language and national security. Retrieved March 14, 2006, from
Wright, W. E. (2007). Heritage language programs in the era of English-only and No Child Left Behind. Heritage Language Journal, 5(1), 1-26.

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One Response to “The Great Divide Between Federal Education Policy and Our National Need for Bilingual Citizens”

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