Sunday, May 10, 1998
Don't Judge 227 by Its Cover, Linguist Warns
University of Southern California linguist Stephen Krashen is on the road these days -- taking his studies, his book and his zeal for bilingual education all over the state as part of a low-key campaign to defeat Proposition 227.
The author of California's beleaguered program for teaching children who don't speak English says he is fighting an unfair battle: "People don't know what's in the initiative. ... When they find out, they don't like it," he argues.
Problem is, he tells bilingual supporters, they may not know the truth until after the polls close June 2.
In his slightly crumpled khakis, practical walking shoes and rolled up shirtsleeves, the 56-year-old education professor says his most important piece of apparel these days is his "No on 227" button.
"Wear them," he told a couple hundred teachers and teaching students at the California State University, Stanislaus, campus in Stockton a week ago. "They invite dialogue, badly needed dialogue."
He has been criticized as an ivory tower academician who has foisted bad ideas on public schools -- first with his whole-language approach to reading, in which children are taught through literature, and later with his plan to make students literate in their primary language, if possible, and then transition them into English.
He's got so many critics, they've labeled themselves "Krashen bashers" on the Internet, but even his harshest foes say he's plenty smart and has done his research.
"He's bright, and he has some wonderful ideas for teaching children," said education author Rosalie Porter, who blasts his work in bilingual education regularly in her Boston newsletter.
In person, Krashen is a warm, friendly man with a huge sense of humor and a genuine fondness for teachers and the education community.
In a rare serious jab at Ron Unz, the wealthy businessman behind Proposition 227, Krashen called the initiative "a massive disrespect of all the teachers, administrators and parents who have been trying to help children."
"Mr. Unz doesn't know it because he has never been in a bilingual program," he told the group in Stockton.
Asked whether he thought Unz, a former candidate for governor, was scapegoating Latinos for political gain, he laughed, "I refuse to lower myself to saying things like, 'If you want to get your name in the public eye for a solid year write an initiative.' "
Krashen wowed the teachers with insight into their struggles in the classroom, research supporting bilingual instruction and funny stories about his Jewish upbringing in Chicago.
"I am personally not in favor of an all-Spanish California," he said. "Now, an all-Yiddish California, this was my grandfather's dream."
He says he has followed that same grandfather's advice for succeeding in America -- "Wear British, think Yiddish."
In 1996, Krashen wrote "Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education" in response to growing criticism. He said he wanted to title the book "In Defense of Bilingual Education" but thought conservative House Speaker Newt Gingrich might be more likely to buy it under the other name.
"And yes," he says slyly, "I've sent a copy to Ron."
In recent months, in light of the Unz initiative, he has re-examined bilingual education, and, he says, "I support it more than ever."
Krashen acknowledges poor performance by Latino students in California schools, the biggest customers of bilingual programs, but blames poverty, a lack of access to books and the lack of education in their homelands for the failures.
"Bilingual education is not the cause of dropouts," he said flatly. "It seems to be the cure."
Krashen says the media have ignored bilingual's successes, giving Unz a free ride on a few examples of bad programs in Orange County.
And he fears that voters will approve the so-called Unz initiative because they "mistakenly" believe it is for English.
Instead, Krashen believes it would throw English learners into an impossible situation. The initiative calls for one year of English immersion and then mainstreaming into English classes -- totally ignoring his theory that children learn to read better in English if they can read in their native languages.
But his biggest criticism is that one year is not enough time for kids to learn to perform academically in English and that it would be difficult for parents to obtain additional primary-language support once the initiative passes.
In fact, even if the measure winds up in the courts, Krashen said that if it passes, the voters will have spoken, and the best way to teach English learners in California will be forever tainted as ineffective and unpopular.
This month he is selling his book for $15 a copy and donating part of the money to local efforts to fight the initiative.
Recently, he said, he and his wife were at the movies, their third viewing of "The Apostle," and the woman selling him popcorn saw his "No on 227" button and told him quickly she favored the initiative.
"When I explained what the initiative would do, she didn't want it," Krashen said. "She wanted what we all want, for children to learn English and do well in school. ... Hey, we have plenty of bad algebra programs out there; do we just throw algebra out?"