The New Republic

March 9, 1998

Language Barrier
California's bilingualism mess.

For the better part of a generation, bilingual education, variously defined and often misunderstood, has been fought over by true believers often more interested in ideology than pedagogy. But rarely has there been a more significant confrontation than the one shaping up over California's Proposition 227, the so-called "English for the Children" initiative. Prop 227 wouldn't prohibit bilingual education for the state's 1.3 million students who are classified as "limited English proficient" and who make up roughly a quarter of the state's public school population. But it makes it so hard for parents to enroll children in bilingual classes that it would drastically reduce instruction in any language but English.

Like many other California ballot initiatives, Prop 227, largely funded by a conservative Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Ron Unz, has already left ripples in state and national politics. Last fall, before California Republicans convened for their state convention, some of their leaders issued loud warnings that GOP support of the Unz measure would further alienate Hispanics, who were already disaffected by the GOP's support of recent ballot measures aimed against affirmative action and illegal immigration. But the warnings didn't keep the party's rank and file from endorsing it, nor did they stop House Speaker Newt Gingrich from making anti-bilingualism a part of the GOP's national agenda.

In fact, the partisan political fallout may be limited because, as Unz correctly divined, most Hispanic parents want their children to learn English as rapidly as possible. Some Latino leaders have tried to describe Unz's measure as immigrant bashing, but their case is weak. Indeed, all the polls show that Prop 227 has strong support even among Hispanics. If it passes, Prop 227 is almost certain to spark similar efforts elsewhere, which will be seen by both sides as major events in defining the larger cultural parameters of American public education. Too bad the coming controversy probably won't do much to clarify the issue, much less help us get beyond the either/or debate over bilingual education that we've been mired in for 20 years.

In most places, bilingual education means that limited English proficient (LEP) students learn English as a second language while they learn other subjects (math, geography, science) at least partly in their native language so that, in theory, they can keep up with their English-speaking peers. But often the objectives of the classes are confused, the quality of instruction is poor, and the criteria used to determine who gets put into a bilingual class and when students are ready to "transition" into regular classes are murky. Is the purpose only to get students into regular classes as rapidly as possible, or is the purpose also some form of (Hispanic) "cultural preservation"? In addition, since bilingual education brings in state and federal dollars for every student enrolled in it, school districts that once had no incentive to pay attention to non-English-speaking kids now have a motive for stuffing them into bilingual ed and keeping them there. Predictably, bilingual ed has given rise to a powerful lobby of consultants and bureaucrats with a vested interest in maintaining and expanding the program.

Two years ago in Los Angeles, some 200 Latino parents, many of them minimum-wage garment workers, became so angry at the unwillingness of administrators at the Ninth Street Elementary School to teach their children in English that they boycotted the school. Some of those students had been in bilingual classes for six years and couldn't write a simple English sentence, which was not surprising since for some LEP students English instruction consisted largely of three hours on the playground and in the lunchroom "mixing" with English-speaking children. And, since it's virtually impossible to find enough qualified teachers for the scores of languages that California's students bring to school, it's not unusual to find Korean or Hmong students being instructed in Spanish--and it's even more commonplace to find hundreds of classes taught by people who have only the barest command of their students' language. Even the bilingual lobby acknowledges that many so-called bilingual classes are educationally deficient.

Unz calls this "a failed system," and he's right. But his remedy is almost as rigid as the Kafkaesque system it would replace. In place of today's common presumption--that any foreign-born student who doesn't test well in English should be in a bilingual class even if she speaks English better than her native language--Prop 227 makes a year in English immersion automatic for children who don't speak English well enough to attend a regular class. Bilingual education would be available only if parents, most of whom speak no English and are intimidated by official bureaucracy, appeared personally at their child's school each year and petitioned for a waiver to allow the child to be placed in a bilingual class. But, since no waiver may be granted until the child has been failing in a regular class for at least 30 days, the waiver system is a prescription for academic defeat (and a powerful argument in the federal equal protection suit which will almost surely be filed if the measure passes).

To be sure, the nation's bilingual programs have been a morass of contradictory purposes, varying practices, and uncertain standards. The failure and dropout rates for Hispanic students, who constitute 70 percent of those defined as LEP, are also disproportionately high. But only about 30 percent of' those students are in bilingual classes, and there's no evidence that the success rate for those who are not is any higher. And, since the training and competence of the teachers, the techniques, the funding, the classroom setting, and the backgrounds of the children being taught all vary immensely, the picture is even more complex. What works with one group in one language may not work with another, and so systematic, up-or-down comparisons are virtually impossible. There is not even any good research on what percentage of those classified as LEP really belong in that category.

The most comprehensive recent review of what research there is, conducted by a panel appointed by the National Research Council and released last year, concluded that native-language instruction can be "helpful." But the NRC panel cautions against any across-the-board generalizations about any approach. And, since there is very little good data on how LEP students learn math or science or history, the problems become even more complicated. Most obviously, in the words of Stanford Professor Kenji Hakuta, who chaired the NRC panel, "studies quickly have become politicized by advocacy groups selectively promoting research findings to support their positions ... Rather than choosing a one-size-fits-all program, the key issue should be identifying those components, backed by solid research findings, that will work in a specific community."

Prop 227, which many California education groups condemn as interfering with local school control, will settle neither the political nor the pedagogical argument. Nor will it be the Armageddon of the culture wars that English-first militants would like it to be. But it will almost certainly intensify a debate that bears directly on the fortunes of a large minority of American students. Nearly six percent of the nation's public school enrollment--some 3.2 million students--are classified as LEP, and their numbers are growing.

The California debate could also have national implications for America's self-perception as a single nation with a single culture. The prevailing American belief is that immigrant children have always been pushed into--and assimilated through--mainstream classes taught entirely in English. But, during much of the nineteenth century, both public and parochial schools often taught in both English and German-or French, or Dutch, or whatever the dominant local immigrant language was. Those choices were based not on pedagogical theory but on ethnic politics. All that ended with the jingoism of World War I, when some states passed laws banning German speech, and mobs raided schools and burned German textbooks.

Nevertheless, in states like Texas and Florida, where business and political leaders understand their regions' interdependence with Latin America, and where Hispanic voters are much more influential than they have been in California, there is considerably more tolerance for, and interest in, bilingual assets. The first major bilingual program of the post-World War II period was established (in 1961) not for disadvantaged Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans, but in response to pressure from Miami's middle-class Cuban refugees, who wanted their children to learn English and to preserve their language and culture.

That fragment of history underlines the major point of the NRC panel: There is no all-purpose approach, and schools and researchers should concentrate on finding what works for particular individuals and groups, issues that are often subject to bitter dispute in many other areas of American education. Indeed, it seems that one of the biggest problems with much bilingual education in U.S. schools is that it has sacrificed instruction in phonics and other basics to a whole-language ideology built around woolly notions of self-esteem.

Unfortunately, neither the ongoing debate over bilingual education nor the California initiative process lends itself to fine distinctions or ever, to the crude demarcations that the country draws in its debates over educational issues. It would be nice if this time there were a little more understanding of the nuances. But we have long been stuck in a binary argument that Prop 227 will perpetuate rather than settle.

PETER SCHRAG'S book, Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future (New Press), will be released in April.