Shape of Things to Come?

Prop 227: The Guru of Bilingualism

Paul Ciotti

April 1998.

Inside the educational establishment, University of Southern California professor Steven Krashen is an academic superstar, writing books and papers, consulting with school districts and jetting off to educational conferences where he's practically become the patron saint of schools of education. His keynote speeches are so well received that teachers have been known to form spontaneous lines at the podium-"Ohhh, Dr. Krashen, just let me hug you!" He's bright, articulate and uncommonly fast on his feet. He is also, in the view of some, deeply and spectacularly mistaken.

As the chief academic defender of bilingual education, Krashen has, over the years, provided intellectual justification for programs that his critics see as having trapped immigrant students in Spanish classes for five, six, or seven years on end, thus preventing them from ever learning enough academic English to compete with native English speakers. The results, contend critics, are appalling test scores and soaring dropout rates that trap kids in minimum-wage jobs with no future. But it's not just Krashen's passionate advocacy of bilingual education that critics object to. There had been a previous go-around with Krashen's views back in 1987 when, as a member of California's 1987 Language-Arts Framework (educational policy) committee, Krashen helped introduce the "whole language" strategy for teaching children to read. It was, said one educational lobbyist, "the single most damaging education reform effort in the history of the state."

"I read one of his books," echoes Marion Joseph, a longtime liberal activist and member of the California Board of Education, "and he is just flat wrong. [His] approach and philosophy are not working. It's so outrageous. The damage done to these children is overwhelming."

For someone at the very heart of a major policy debate, Krashen keeps a decidedly low profile when not on stage at some rally or debate. He kofsky later told me that his mother, who is an elementary school teacher, recently "went to a teacher inservice (professional development training session) and when she came back, she started asking me, 'What's going on. All I hear is Krashen, Krashen, Krashen. Who is this guy?'"

In Tokofsky's view he's also someone who is too clever by half. Tokofsky met Krashen last year when he testified before the Los Angeles Board of Education to argue for better school libraries and more books. "We had just gotten the Stanford 9 test results," says Tokofsky. "They were abysmal, horrible."

When it was Krashen's turn to speak, says Tokofsky, he said, "'I would just stop spending money on tests and put it all into libraries.' I said, 'Excuse me, what did you just say? Eliminate all tests?' But he was a half step ahead of me. He had all these snappy responses-'Weighing the baby more often doesn't make it grow any faster.'"

Originally Krashen hadn't planned to devote his life to the study of language acquisition. His doctoral dissertation was in the area of neurolinguistics, and he later held a post-doctoral fellowship at the UCLA Neuropsy-chiatric Institute. But then, he says, he was "intellectually seduced" by the legendary linguist and longtime leftist Noam Chomsky." He subsequently began to study language acquisition, writing a book in 1981 (Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning ) that has since become a standard in the field. His biggest contribution is a unified field theory of language acquisition. "He's like Freud," says one Los Angeles schoolteacher who disagrees with Krashen's theories but respects their breadth. "He's given us a language to talk about things we couldn't talk about before."

Perhaps because of Krashen's influence, whenever linguists get together there are always some people who want to take off on him (in the trade it is called "Krashen bashin'"). And it's not always just about his theories themselves. Krashen, says Barry McLaughlin, a bilingual researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has an "unfortunate" tendency to make "sweeping statements based on weak empirical data," "to switch assumptions to suit his purposes" and "to brush aside conflicting evidence in footnotes" where it's less likely to be seen.

In his own defense, Krashen says there are explanations for criticism directed his way, and not all of them necessarily have anything to do with whether or not his theories are correct. "Unlike Chomsky," he says, "my field has a heavy practical impact. If Chomsky is right or wrong businesses don't rise or fall. In my case, if I'm right, nearly all the [English as a Second Language] and foreign language textbooks are obsolete. Many of the language arts textbooks are obsolete. Teachers will get hired and fired. Bilingual education rises and falls. So a lot of the critics have other motivations."

Krashen has a major motivation himself these days-defending bilingual education. Even before software entrepreneur Ron Unz's anti-bilingual education initiative Proposition 227) qualified for the ballot, Krashen was out in front attacking it, dashing off letters-to-the-editor, speaking at campus rallies and debates, and otherwise assailing the premise that Unz had any qualifications whatsoever to write an education initiative.

Unz's English-for-the-Children initiative, Krashen repeatedly tells audiences, is an educational disaster in the making in that it is based on no scientific studies and will limit non-native speakers to one year of transitional help and despite what Krashen claims are numerous studies showing that children need many more years to attain English proficiency.

"Ron Unz is a complete amateur, a software entrepreneur!" says Krashen. "And here he is trying to dictate state policy on bilingual education. The hospital administrators are telling the surgeons how to operate!"

But to critics of bilingual education that's a lot better than letting the operations be done by bilingual ideologues. The main problem with bilingual education is that it's not bilingual at all, says Gloria Matta Tuchman, Unz initiative co-sponsor and candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. "It's monolingual Spanish." And it continues that way for many years, especially in reading. By the time children get into all-English classes, they are so far behind their English-speaking classmates in English fluency they never do catch up.

This is one reason why, critics believe, that the Hispanic drop-out rate is twice that of whites. It's also the reason that recent polls by the Los Angeles Times show nearly three times as many people plan to vote for the Unz initiative as plan to vote against it, and that the measure still has strong support in the Hispanic community.

To Krashen, the dropout rate is a phony issue. Hispanic teenagers drop out of school to get jobs, he says, not because bilingual education has left them unequipped to succeed in high school. Besides, he maintains, when you adjust for the students' economic status (low-income people drop out more), the dropout rates for whites and Hispanics are "virtually identical." As for those polls that show overwhelming support for the Unz initiative, you can't rely on them either, says Krashen. Depending on how you ask the question, you can get any result you want.

Finally there is the problem of what Krashen sees as the media's conservative bias when it comes to bilingual education-only 45 percent of the stories written by the normally liberal media support bilingual education, in contrast to 87 percent of academic papers which he says do support it. This is the explanation, he says, for the support the Unz initiative has received from prominent Hispanics like Jaime Escalante, the former East Los Angeles teacher whose success teaching advanced-placement calculus to Hispanic students at Garfield High was depicted in the film Stand and Deliver. "If all I knew about bilingual education was what I read in the papers," says Krashen, "I'd be against it too."

If he is somewhat on the defensive when it comes to bilingualism these days, Krashen is even more embattled on the pedagogical issue of whole language. When asked about his role on California's 1987 Framework Committee, Krashen cheerfully pleads "guilty" to the charge of introducing whole language into the state. But his goal, he quickly says, certainly wasn't to make kids illiterate. It was rather to introduce them to something that could make learning to read as easy and natural as learning to talk.

Instead of squelching a child's natural enthusiasm with "drill and kill" exercises, says Krashen, with whole language, rather, you offer the child a "rich print environment" of interesting and accessible books. You don't need phonics. You don't need tests. You don't even need formal instruction. If you just surround the children with books, the kids will read them, and when they do they will acquire proper grammar, vocabulary, and spelling through the act of reading itself. Or, as Krashen puts it-"we learn to read by reading."

With the support of the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, whole language swept through California public education and university teacher-training departments like academic wildfire. Within a few years 87 percent of all teachers reported that whole language was their teaching method of choice. Leftist activist and educators were euphoric, calling the technique "the child-centered, experiential, reflective, authentic, holistic, social, collaborative [and] democratic" route to literacy.

Parents on the other hand were less enthusiastic to discover their children were being encouraged to "invent" their own spelling; that grammar and vocabulary instruction were out the door; and that anyone who objected was ridiculed as a "phonics Nazi."

Liberal euphoria over whole language ended in 1995 when the results of the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that California students had come in last in the nation, tied with Louisiana for last place.

"The research is really clear," says former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. "[Under whole language] kids gave up by the third grade. The percentage of kids coming out of the third grade going into the fourth grade that can really read that 4th grade material is ten percent in Los Angeles and one-third in suburban areas. Everyone knows no matter what people are telling them that there is a huge hunk of kids who can't read. [At some schools] you can't teach spelling. It makes no sense. They have somehow confused teaching (basic reading) skills with being anti-Hispanic. Krashen has a lot to answer for. He has blood on his hands on this one."

The drop in test scores caused a fury among state legislators who were being blamed by parents for blindly buying into whole language without proof that it really worked. In an unprecedented frenzy of bipartisan cooperation, the legislature unanimously passed in 1996 a series of "back-to-basics" bills (known as the "ABC bills") emphasizing phonics and generally repudiating the whole language approach. They also created a State Board of Education with authority over curriculum to counter the stranglehold that whole language ideologues had on the state Department of Education.

When you ask Krashen how he responds to the charge that whole language wrecked the education of hundreds of thousands of school children across the state, he answers that, contrary to the whole premise on which the back-to-phonics movement was based, test scores did not go down during the golden age of whole language. The 1995 Framework Committee-which reversed the recommendations of the 1987 committee on which Krashen had served-"didn't even look to see if there was a decline," says Krashen. In fact, he says, when you consider how few library books most students had access to (fewer than the number available to some prison inmates) and the increasing percentage of children living in poverty, "it is amazing that the scores are still the same. Our teachers must be doing a wonderful job."

To Bill Honig, the assertion that test scores didn't decline in the early nineties is absurd. "Test scores were going up every year in the eighties," says Honig. "We adopted the [whole language] framework in 1987." The state suspended testing for four years to save money. When testing finally resumed in 1994, California kids were the worst readers in the country. "What Steve Krashen has been saying has hurt large numbers of kids."

With polls showing Unz's English-for-the-Children initiative ahead by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio, with the June election just weeks away, Krashen is everywhere these days, speaking at rallies, writing letters to the Los Angeles Times and Atlantic Monthly to complain about their anti-bilingual stories and articles and firing off e-mail messages to bilingual supporters, many of whom seem to regard the Unz initiative as a dark and malignant plague settling slowly over the land.

Surprisingly, no one on either side is really discussing the real issue. If the current battle over Prop. 227 (the English for the Children initiative) were simply a debate over which method best teaches children English, few people would care, and Ron Unz never could have collected the necessary 700,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. The hidden battle that provides much of the emotional energy for the debate is one over assimilation versus multiculturalism. Supporters of bilingual education are invariably multiculturalists who in some inchoate way see bilingual education as an opportunity to make it up to Hispanics for having seized the American southwest from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe. As believers in the self-esteem theory of education, they also resist anything that might (temporarily) lower a child's self-esteem, such as for instance, the trauma of having to learn a new language. They also see bilingual education as a way to support Hispanic activists who believe that if immigrant children are taught in Spanish it will forever be their primary language, the one they dream in, fight in and make love in. This in turn will make sure that they will forever remain loyal to the country of their birth.

Critics of bilingual education, on the other hand, are people troubled by what they regard as an appalling lack of assimilation. They see Hispanic activists running through the streets of Los Angeles shouting anti-American slogans and carrying Mexican flags; they see upwards of 80,000 Hispanic soccer fans laughing, jeering, and blowing plastic trumpets during the playing of the national anthem at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and otherwise rooting for the Mexican team over the American one; and they conclude that, unlike previous generations of immigrants, many current immigrants neither have much respect for this country nor any great desire to assimilate.

To his credit, Krashen doesn't play the race card (he keeps the discussion strictly on the best way to teach English). Instead, as a way of defusing the suspicion of many Americans that bilingual education is really a part of some anti-American cultural agenda, he continually reiterates in his talks and debates that "the goal is English. English is the goal;" he wouldn't support bilingual education if the goal weren't English literacy; "and the fastest way to get it is to give children literacy in the first language."

Given the public's current (negative) feelings about bilingual education, it's not an easy sell. "Isn't it true," I asked Krashen at one point, confused by his assertion that time on task doesn't matter, "that more time you spend on [learning English] the faster and better you get it?"

"It turns out that's not true," Krashen said quickly. "Absolutely not true." As for the issue of assimilation, even "right-wing Republicans should support bilingual education," he said, "it's the fastest route to English."

Although this might seem to fly in the face of common sense, Krashen told me, sometimes reality operates that way. For instance, he told of recently losing 15 pounds on the high-fat, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet.

"Who would think," he asked, "that the best way to lose weight is to eat fat? Well, the best way to learn to read is counter-intuitive too."

"How are the kids going to learn English if they don't hear English?" demands Gloria Matta Tuchman, an elementary school teacher with 33 years experience successfully teaching English to non-English speaking first graders. "If you hear Spanish, you learn Spanish. And they are not even doing a good job of doing that!"

Besides, she asks, where on earth does Krashen get off telling people like herself, who have spent decades in the classroom transitioning kids from Spanish to English in just one year, the best way to teach English?

"The man has never taught elementary school, much less first grade," says Tuchman. "I don't think he has a clue."


Paul Ciotti is a freelance writer who lives in Southern California.