Impact of Unz
LA Times Polls
Responding to Unz
Canard of the Month
Responding to Unz-Supported Claims
Ron Unz, chairman of English
for the Children, is spearheading an anti-bilingual education initiative
in California. Not surprisingly, he has some strong opinions on the subject.
Yet, when asked to back them up, he's able to marshal surprisingly little
evidence. Unz advances four basic claims:
Let's examine these one by one.
that immigrant children are failing to learn English in California
of bilingual education;
that English-only immersion programs – which provide
maximum exposure to the second language – are more effective in teaching
that immigrant parents want their children schooled
in English-only – not bilingual – classrooms; and
that bilingual education exists in California mainly
to perpetuate a self-serving bureaucracy at enormous cost to the taxpayers.
education is a complete failure in California. ... Each year only about
5% of children not proficient in English are found to have gained proficiency
in English. Thus, the current system of language instruction has an annual
failure rate of 95%."
This statement is misleading in several ways:
Table I. LEP Students Redesignated
as FEP, 1993-1996, in Selected California School Districts, by Percentage
of LEP students in Bilingual Classrooms.
Bilingual education cannot be held to blame for "failure"
of the "current system" because it serves only a minority of limited-English-proficient
(LEP) children in California schools. Last year, fewer than 30 percent
of the state's 1,381,393 LEP students were enrolled in bilingual classrooms,
while more than 70 percent were taught their lessons only in English.<1>
If California schools are failing these children today, it's due to an
overdose of Ron Unz's prescription – English-only instruction.
No rational observer would claim that high schools
have a "75% failure rate" because only 25% of their students graduate each
year. Likewise with English acquisition. Setting a one-year standard is
equally arbitrary. LEP children often do pick up conversational skills
quickly (a.k.a. playground English). But research has shown that
it takes them far longer to acquire the academic English they need
to succeed in school – typically 4 to 7 years if enrolled
in an effective bilingual program; 7 to 10 years in an English-only program.<2>
The statistics Unz uses – the percentage of
LEP students "redesignated" as fluent in English each year
very crude yardsticks for assessing school programs. Such figures fluctuate
wildly from year to year and school to school, often distorted by uncontrolled
variables such as enrollment trends, dropout and transfer rates, students'
socioeconomic status, and parents' education level.
"Redesignation rates" are further distorted by a
lack of uniform definitions and procedures for gauging limited English
proficiency. These vary widely among school districts and even among schools
within the same system. Sometimes the standard is unrealistically high.
For example, some districts do not redesignate LEP children as fluent-English-proficient
(FEP) until they score above the 50th percentile in English – in
other words, in the top half of their class. Needless to say, substantial
numbers of kids never make it to that level, including many native English
Yet even by this imperfect measure, LEP students
often do better in bilingual classrooms than in English-only classrooms,
illustrated in Table I. Two Orange County districts that have resisted
bilingual education (Garden Grove Unified and Westminster Elementary) have
consistently lower "redesignation rates" than two demographically similar
districts in nearby Los Angeles County (ABC Unified and Baldwin Park Unified).
with Limited Bilingual Education
with More Bilingual Education
Source: California Department of Education,
1996 Language Census.
indicates that sheltered English immersion ... is the most rapid and efficient
means of English language acquisition. Within months to a year, the overwhelming
majority of these young children would become fluent in English ..."
– English for the Children
Unz cites no research showing the superiority
of "sheltered English immersion" – or that children can "become fluent
in English ...within months to a year" – for a simple reason:
does not exist. Only a few English-only programs for LEP children have
been evaluated in the United States and, of these, none has shown impressive
There is nothing wrong with "sheltered English"
per se – teaching a second language through content instruction that's
tailored to students' level of English proficiency. Indeed, sheltered English
methodologies are widely used in bilingual education programs. But research
shows that such "immersion" techniques are far more effective when used
along with native-language instruction. That's the approach recommended
by the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
in its new ESL standards:
"For ESOL learners the most effective educational
environments for second language teaching and learning are those that promote
ESOL students' native language and literacy development as a foundation
for English language and academic development."<3>
By contrast, English-only immersion is a stopgap
approach that some schools provide when they are unable or unwilling
to offer bilingual education. Most experts believe it is better than doing
nothing for LEP children, but few would recommend it as a model to emulate.
That's because this approach has virtually no support in educational
overwhelmingly rate learning English as the top educational goal for their
children, and by 4-1 favor their children learning English as soon as possible
rather than learning Spanish before English ('bilingual education')."
– English for the Children
"I hate to say this, but
I think one of the real goals of the bilingual education program in California
is to keep the hundreds of millions of dollars going into that program
and paying the salaries of all the bureaucrats and administrators."
Give parents a false either/or choice
– "Do your want your children to learn English? Or do you want them taught
only in Spanish?" – and the vast majority will opt for English every time.
Polling results can be easily manipulated in this way. Unz relies on two
surveys of Hispanic parents. A 1996 poll commissioned by the so-called
for Equal Opportunity, a neoconservative advocacy group, asked the
In general, which of the following comes
closes to your opinion?
A 1997 Los Angeles Times poll
of Latinos living in Orange County, California, asked a question that fails
to convey the reality of bilingual education:
1. My child should be taught his/her academic
courses in Spanish, even if it means they will spend less time learning
2. My child should be taught his/her academic
courses in English, because they will spend more time learning English.
3. Don't know. (6.5%).<4>
Which of the following do you most prefer for teaching students
who speak limited English?
In fact, option #3 is a poor surrogate for bilingual
education programs, the vast majority of which feature significant amounts
of English from day one. As Stephen Krashen notes
in a letter to the Times, option #1 comes closer than the
others to what "most experts on bilingual education recommend." Another
way to look at this poll is that only 1 in 4 Latinos favors English-only
instruction – even in conservative Orange County.
1. Mostly English with some help in their native language. (57%)
2. Only in English as soon as they enroll in school. (26%)
3. Native language until they are ready to learn English. (17%)<5>
More objective researchers, by accurately describing
what goes on in bilingual classrooms, have elicited very different answers.
In several such surveys, minority communities have expressed strong approval
of schooling their children in two languages. For example:
1996 California Latino Issues Poll, Southwest
Voter Research Institute:
of registered Latino voters supported bilingual education in a statewide
immigrant parents, two surveys reported in 1996:
70 percent of Korean parents supported
Korean-English bilingual instruction;
60 percent of Hmong parents supported
Hmong-English bilingual instruction.<7>
– Ron Unz, KABC/KGO Radio,
6 August 1997
When all else fails, attack the "bureaucrats"
and "special interests" who waste tax dollars on "minorities" – there's
always a receptive audience for that kind of demagoguery. For far-Right
politicians like Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Simi Valley), such rhetoric
has become a reflex action. McClintock, who helped Unz win an endorsement
for his initiative by California Republicans, denounced bilingual education
as "a cash cow for the teachers' unions."
Table II. California Expenditures on K-12 Education
and Categorical Aid for LEP Students, 1995-96.
Annual spending of "hundreds of millions" does
sound like a lot. But compared to what? A bit of context is needed here
(see Table II).
Does spending for English language learners add
excessively to the cost of running California's public schools? You
make the call.
|Total state spending for all
|Categorical state aid to educate
as a percentage
of total spending
|Portion of categorical aid for
as a percentage
of total spending
|Number of LEP students in California
of total enrollment
|Spending per student in California public schools
|Supplemental spending per LEP
Source: California Department of Education;
National Center for Education Statistics.
California also received $55 million in federal funds
under the Bilingual Education Act for programs to serve LEP students, along
with a portion of the state's allocation under Title I, Education for Disadvantaged
Children. Some, but by no means all, of this money went to support bilingual
The key question – which critics
usually fail to ask – is whether bilingual education is costlier than other
alternatives for educating LEP students. The answer is no, according to
a 1992 study commissioned by the California legislature, which analyzed
five common program models.<10> It turned
out that bilingual approaches cost no more – and in some cases considerably
less – than English-only approaches. By far the most expensive were programs
in which children were "pulled out" of class for tutoring in English as
a second language, an approach that requires an extra complement of teachers.
Table III. Supplemental LEP Education Costs
Per Pupil, by Model and Activity, in Selected California Schools.
|Admin. & Support
|Total Avg. Supp. Costs
Source: Chambers and Parrish
1. California Department of Education,
Educational Demographics Unit, Language Census for California Public
2. Virginia P. Collier, "Acquiring
a Second Language for School," Directions in Language and Education
1, no. 4 (Fall 1995).
Standards for Pre-K–12 Students (Alexandria,
Va.: TESOL, 1997), p. 8.
4. Significantly, 81.5% of respondents
said their children had never been in a special program for English language
learners; Michael LaVelle, The Importance of Learning English: A National
Survey of Hispanic Parents (Washington, D.C.: Center for Equal Opportunity,
5. Nick Anderson, "Times Orange
County Poll: Public Schools Deserve Good Grades, Most Say,"
Times, June 1, 1997.
6. Cited in Sherry Bebitch Jeffe,
"California Conservatism's Worst Nightmare Revealed," Los Angeles Times,
August 17, 1997.
7. F. Shin and B. Lee, "K-12 Teachers
and Hmong and Korean Parents' Perceptions of Bilingual Education," Paper
presented at CABE Conference, Jan. 11, 1996; F. Shin and S. Kim, "Korean
Parent Perceptions and Attitudes of Bilingual Education," in Current
Issues in Asian and Pacific American Education (West Covina, Calif.:
Pacific Asian Press, forthcoming); cited in Stephen Krashen, Under Attack:
The Case Against Bilingual Education (Culver City, Calif.: Language
Education Associates, 1996).
8. Known as Economic Impact Aid,
this program provides supplemental funding on a per-capita basis to help
schools educate not only LEP students, but also some "low-achieving" students
who are not LEP. Over the past decade, The EIA has failed to keep pace
with rising enrollments. Adjusted for inflation, its 1996 allowance per
student represented a reduction of 43 percent from the 1987 level.
9. Estimate based on the 30% of
LEP children enrolled in bilingual classrooms.
10. Jay Chambers and Tom Parrish,
the Challenge of Diversity: An Evaluation of Programs for Pupils with Limited
Proficiency in English, vol. IV, Cost of Programs and Services for
LEP Students (Berkeley, Calif.: BW Associates, 1992). The study examined
only well-implemented programs of each type, so this nonrandom sample cannot
be "generalized" to compute average expenditures for all California schools.
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