I have a mixed reaction to reading about Lau V Nichols and Castaneda v Pickard. I feel that especially given the time period in which the rulings took place, coming on the heels of the Vietnam War and in the middle of the Cold War, tensions were probably high in the US regarding immigrants and non-white people. This makes the fact that the Lau lawsuit was filed on behalf of Chinese-American students make a lot of sense, since these students were likely being discriminated against (systematically, intentionally, or otherwise) because of their Asian heritage - I am at least moderately surprised at the ruling for similar reasons. The 1973-1974 Supreme Court is largely considered by historians to be a “liberal” court, having made rulings (such as the still-hotly-debated Roe v Wade ruling and others) considered to be more progressive. The values of progressive movements tend to be in alignment with compassion for and awareness of minority students, which lessens my surprise at the ruling itself.
For the most part, I think the ruling in Lau v Nichols was well-intentioned, but problematically vague. Without prescribing any methods for implementing or evaluating improved access to education for Emergent Bilingual students, it would be nearly impossible to enforce the ruling in school districts that were unwilling or unable to implement changes effectively. This is where the Castaneda v Pickard case comes in handy by providing specific criteria by which programs for emergent bilingual students should be assessed. These criteria seem at first like good standards - instruction methods must be research-based, implemented well, and consistently evaluated for effectiveness. No well-reasoned educator would take issue with implementing practices that are researched-based and evaluating those practices to ensure that they are effective. The rub, I feel, lies in the first provision: the idea that teaching methods must be research-based. Especially in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, language acquisition as a field of research was relatively young, only about ten years old. In a field as new as this one, research findings are bound to have a certain degree of unreliability simply because long-term studies cannot be completed and replicated enough times to give particularly definitive results. Because of these factors, it was likely difficult or impossible to determine which methods of instruction could be considered to be backed by high-quality and replicable research, so this criteria could be easily argued around and lose its “oomf”. Unfortunately, this was probably an unavoidable pitfall of a good intention, as any guidelines implemented at this point in history would be bound to have flaws rooted in the newness of the field.
These were court cases that, surprisingly, I had not heard of before reading these articles. In theory, these rulings would have meant good things for emergent bilingual students and their access to education - and I’m sure, in many districts and for many students, they did. Schools were now required by law to ensure that these children had access to English education that would then allow them a meaningful public school experience. For schools, these rulings meant that programs not already serving EB students sufficiently had to find funding, qualified teachers, and other resources (like classrooms and supplies) to suddenly support brand-new ESL programs. This likely put a strain on budgets and teaching resources, although surely that would be a worthwhile hardship if it meant that more students had access to a high-quality education. However, as discussed above, there were likely schools who found ways to justify poor implementation of ESL programs and, thus, there were probably students who should have benefited from this ruling but still would have been prevented from getting the instruction they needed. No legislation in education is perfect and these were not without their flaws but, by and large, they set a good precedent in the federal court that the needs of emergent bilingual students need to be taken seriously and accommodated for.