New York Times
Thursday, April 30, 1998
A Cramped Approach to Bilingualism
Frustration over the failure of bilingual education for many children
has created widespread public support for a narrow-minded ballot measure
in California that would dismantle all bilingual programs, regardless of
effectiveness. Like most states, California currently allows different
types of programs to help limited-English speakers. Some schools adopt
the English as a Second Language approach, using English in most classes
for newcomers. Others offer classes in basic subjects for students in their
native language while they learn English separately.
Proposition 227 on the June ballot would eliminate these choices. Instead
it would permit only one approach, a yearlong English immersion program
where all subjects are taught in English, unless a parent makes a case
for special treatment. It would essentially require all students to learn
English in one year, even though many children need several years of language
This sink-or-swim approach fails to account for different instructional
strategies tailored to grade levels. A high school student, for example,
might need to be taught in a language other than English to stay at grade
level in math and science while he or she is also learning English. That
student's needs are quite different from those of a first grader who may
be able to make a quicker transition from a native language to English.
Proposition 227 makes no such distinctions. It would take away local control
and create an educational straitjacket.
Nonetheless, this measure has attracted broad support even in the Hispanic
community, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of students in bilingual
classes. That support is not surprising. Bilingual programs are often ghettos
of poor instruction. The referendum idea took hold when a group of Latino
parents boycotted a Los Angeles elementary school to demand that their
children be excused from ineffective bilingual classes.
Part of the problem is that the growth in the population of immigrant
students in California over the past decade has created a shortage of qualified
teachers. The Clinton Administration, which opposes the California measure,
is seeking $50 million to train bilingual teachers. The status quo in many
California schools is certainly depressing. But replacing bad programs
with a plan to destroy good programs makes no sense. Proposition 227 will
help voters vent their frustrations but will not help California's 1.3
million bilingual students enter the mainstream any quicker.