Lost in the translation

Will the fight brewing over bilingual education be the salvation of Spanish-speaking students?

Today is all about the letter Y, announces Kathleen Harvey to the 15 Latino students who make up her kindergarten class.

“Y for yo-yo,” she says slowly, pointing to the letter and the accompanying word on a large chart.

One boy stops fidgeting long enough to shout a different pronunciation: “In espa?ol, it’s ‘jo-jo’!”

“No,” corrects Harvey. “In English, it’s ‘yuh, yuh, yo-yo.’ The Y says ‘yuh.'” For the next hour, the children explore words like “yesterday” and “yogurt.” Harvey, with occasional help from a Spanish-speaking aide, slowly and patiently enunciates every word, bringing the kids to an understanding of the troublesome consonant. As a reward, they get to color drawings of yo-yos. Like the kids in another class down the hall, where all the instruction is in Spanish, Harvey’s students yack away to each other as they push their crayons. But much of the chattering here is in English, even when the teacher isn’t around to listen.

The dueling kindergartens (with a third class for English-speaking students) are at the Dr. Marcella R. Kelly School, which occupies a one-story building amid the rundown triple-deckers of downtown Holyoke. Three years ago, the 85 kindergarteners would have been divided between all-English and all-Spanish classes, says interim principal Ellen Jackson, with Latino students later moved into classes with English instruction. But starting last year, the school offered Latino parents another option, what’s called “English immersion.”

“The research tells us that kids need several years of teaching in their native languages, and we’ve tried it [that] way, getting the foundation in Spanish and transitioning,” says Jackson. “But for some kids it hasn’t worked. A lot of these kids come into kindergarten without knowing letters or sounds anyway, so we thought, why not start them in English?”

To Jackson, the immersion approach simply amplifies the children’s exposure to the language everyone agrees they need to learn. “Most of these kids will go home to Spanish-speaking homes,” she says. “But they watch television shows, they interact with English when they go to stores. They’re very capable of learning English.”

The Kelly School’s immersion class is one of several experimental programs that the Holyoke system is trying out this year to teach immigrant children English. But such programs will become the norm if voters approve a referendum proposal to change the state’s bilingual-education law in November. Jackson thinks this might be a good idea. A lot of other people don’t.

Under the current law, children learn to read and study other subjects in their native language for up to three years, in what’s called “transitional” bilingual education, until school officials decide they are fluent enough in English to be mainstreamed. The referendum, which was placed on the ballot after 79,000 registered voters signed petitions on its behalf, would require school systems to place students in “structured English immersion” for one year before moving them into English-only classrooms.

The proposal capitalizes on widespread criticism (even from some bilingual-ed proponents) of bilingual education as it is currently offered in Massachusetts, and frustration over the Legislature’s failure to reform it. But the move is also part of a nationwide effort to throw bilingual education overboard. In California in 1998, Proposition 227 moved a million Spanish-speaking students out of bilingual programs and into English-immersion classes. In Arizona in 2000, a similar referendum passed with 63 percent of the vote. This fall, Colorado voters will be asked to endorse a proposal similar to the one in Massachusetts.

The common thread in all these referendums is California software entrepreneur Ron Unz, who founded the group English for the Children. Unz, a single, childless Anglo, spent $700,000 to pass the California referendum and is bankrolling the Massachusetts effort as well. Though Unz made frequent trips east during the petition drive, he’s now more of a virtual presence in Massachusetts. He relies on frequent e-mails to supporters and journalists across the country to spread the latest news on his anti-bilingual education drive and other subjects close to his gadfly heart, like the Middle East conflict. Otherwise, Unz has left the Massachusetts campaign to local supporters. These include some of the state’s best and brightest Latino educators. Heading the referendum effort here is Lincoln Tamayo, the energetic, Cuban-born former principal of Chelsea High School. Also on board is Wilfredo Laboy, the Puerto Rican-born superintendent of the Lawrence public schools.

Unz confounds as much as he enrages his opponents. They’d like to call him racist, but he opposed California’s Proposition 187, which denied services to undocumented immigrants, most of them Hispanic. Some theorize that he’s trying to build a national political base for a run at public office.

Whatever his motives, he’s clearly been successful at pushing bilingual education to the top of the educational agenda. After several years of legislative logjams, the House and Senate chairmen of the Legislature’s joint education committee filed a bill in January to overhaul the state’s bilingual-education program. In her State of the State address, acting Gov. Jane Swift also announced legislation of her own, which would call for individual students to be moved into English-only classes after two years of bilingual instruction, compared with the current three-year limit. But neither plan goes as far as the Unz referendum- nor satisfies its proponents. That means the debate over the best way to teach non-English-speaking children will only grow more intense as November approaches.


No matter what happens with the referendum, the passionate feelings on both sides of the debate are unlikely to change.

Unz and his allies say that bilingual education may have seemed like a good idea when it was introduced in the 1960s, but it has grown into a separate and unequal educational system that gives immigrant children a second-rate education and keeps them segregated by language far longer than is necessary. “I was literally handing out diplomas to kids who could not, the next day, defend themselves on the streets in English,” Tamayo says of his days running Chelsea High. “We’re setting these kids up for failure.”

The only thing that’s propping up bilingual education, he says, is self-interest. “What they’re really trying to defend is an industry,” he says. “The bottom line is that if you do not teach children to speak in English and have command of English in subject matter as quickly as possible, that child will not have a productive life in our country. It’s as simple as that.”

Referendum opponents, who include bilingual educators, Latino advocacy groups and politicians, and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, argue that it’s not as simple as that. Some call Unz’s movement “anti-immigrant” and say it oversimplifies the complexity of learning a language. One year of immersion is not going to prepare these students to learn a range of subjects in what is still a new language, they insist.

“Expecting kids to learn English in a year is a ridiculous expectation,” says Stanford University education professor Kenji Hakuta, an expert on bilingual education who tangled with Unz over the California referendum. Hakuta disputes the commonly held idea that all children can naturally pick up languages quicker when they’re young. “Some do and some don’t,” he says. “And there’s a difference between conversational English and the type of English needed to be proficient in more complex academic areas, like math or history.”

“We’re arguing about two different things,” says Peg Wallace, interim director of bilingual education in Holyoke, which has 2,200, mostly Latino, students (nearly a third of total K-to-12 enrollment) in its bilingual program. “Immersion people are about language. Bilingual education people are about education,” says Wallace. “Yes, the kids will learn English, but you’ll notice they didn’t call it ‘Education for the Children’. I really wonder whether they’ll get an education.”

Still, even some past supporters have growing doubts about the bilingual approach. Take Boston University education professor Charles Glenn, who directed the state’s bilingual education program in the 1970s. “I’ve become pretty dubious about it in the past few years,” he says. Glenn wrote a book about how other countries educate immigrant children and found that the United States was unique.

“The most troublesome thing is that we were isolating language-minority kids from other children,” says Glenn. “This runs contrary to the fact that kids learn from other kids, particularly in language use.”

“Bilingual ed is an excellent idea with very few resources dedicated to it.”

The subtext of this debate is the undeniable fact that Latinos, who constitute most of the foreign-language student population, are faring poorly in school by just about any academic measure. There have been improvements, but Latino students still have a higher dropout rate than do other ethnic groups, and they’re less likely to get to college. (Latino teenage girls are also more likely than their black and white counterparts to become pregnant, which further compromises their academic prospects.) The MCAS picture has improved slightly, but it’s still not so bright: Nearly half the Latino 10th-graders tested last year failed the English portion of the test, and nearly 60 percent failed the math section. Among Latino eighth-graders, 66 percent failed the math portion of the test, and 77 percent failed the history/social science test.

Bilingual educators say they’re not to blame for this poor academic record, pointing instead to such factors as poverty, transient students, and deteriorating urban schools. (For example, Lawrence High School, which serves a mostly Hispanic population, lost its accreditation in 1997 and is just now going through the formal process of getting it back.) They say the answer is to improve bilingual education, not to throw it away.

“Bilingual ed is an excellent idea with very few resources dedicated to it,” says Sonia Nieto, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “You could say Latino kids aren’t learning math. Do we say let’s stop teaching them math? No, we say let’s improve the math teaching.”


Massachusetts made history in 1971 when it passed the nation’s first bilingual-education law, requiring that school districts provide three years of study in their native language for any group of 20 or more limited English proficiency (LEP) students who speak the same language. Today, about 38,000–or 4 percent of all Massachusetts students–are enrolled in bilingual-education programs. Sixty-two percent of those students are categorized as Hispanic, and the majority are in urban districts, including Chelsea, which has a 28 percent bilingual enrollment; Holyoke, with 26 percent; Lawrence with 25 percent; and Cambridge with 20 percent. The City of Boston follows close behind, with 17 percent of its students in bilingual programs.

In theory, students get their foundation in reading and math in their native language, and after a few years of “transitional” classes, they are mainstreamed into English coursework. But critics say that three years often extends to five and six, and that the coursework in bilingual classes is not as rigorous as English-language classes. Even bilingual-ed sympathizers complain about the quality of the teachers and teaching materials, and they note that the state does a poor job of keeping track of LEP students.

Though state law is fairly rigid, bilingual education takes different forms around Massachusetts, and even within districts, depending on students’ ages and abilities. Framingham offers curriculum content in the native language while also allowing students time to learn particular units with native English speakers. In Cambridge, the popular Amigos program offers “two-way” bilingual education, in which native and non-native English speakers are taught in both languages in the same classroom. In yet another variation,”inclusion” courses are taught in English with in-class assistance from Spanish-speaking teachers.

This fall’s referendum could wipe away most of these differences, replacing the state mandate of up to three years of transitional bilingual education with a cap of one year in immersion programs focusing on English language proficiency. Opponents deride the referendum as a “one-size-fits-all” prescription (though waivers would be available for certain students, such as older immigrants). Unz and his followers respond that their approach has been proven correct in California, following the passage of Proposition 227 there.

Seeming to disprove predictions of disaster, test scores among Hispanic students in California shot up in the two years following the 1998 referendum. The percentage of Hispanics with reading test scores above the 50th percentile increased from 21 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2001.

But Kenji Hakuta points out that Proposition 227 was just one of many changes in education made in 1998; others include an increase in overall spending, the reducing of class sizes from 30 to 20 in younger grades, and a shift to phonics-based reading instruction. Hakuta also points out that, after test scores went up dramatically one year, the rise slowed down the next year, and then flattened out. He adds that grade-level test scores are deceptive because they don’t follow the same students. “What you really want is one that tracks people from one year to the next,” he says. “This year’s third-graders are different from last year’s third-graders.”

Hakuta says there’s no evidence to support the idea that a student can learn English in one year, but research does show that a well-coordinated, well-funded, program of bilingual education can work (if you can find one). But Tamayo seems to relish picking apart test-score results of bilingual “success stories” like Framingham’s. He sent a three-page e-mail, titled “Framingham Bilingual Education: Not What It Seems To Be” to a Boston Globe reporter, refuting nearly every bragging point of the program.

English-immersion proponents like the Cuban-born Tamayo (and national movement leaders like Linda Chavez) tell compelling personal stories about their experiences as immigrant children struggling to learn English–and succeeding, in a way that leads directly to success in a new land. For Tamayo, the son of a doctor, it was a journey from Cuba to Mexico to Puerto Rico to New Jersey: “We were like pinballs,” he says. He landed in a kindergarten classroom at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Tampa, where he began to learn English with “Mrs. Felita.”

“Literally within a month, two months, I was speaking like a parrot,” he says, “and by the end of kindergarten I could read.” It was a path that led to Notre Dame University and Harvard.

Holyoke bilingual director Wallace responds with her own stories, like that of Bebe, a 5-year-old who arrived for the first day of kindergarten not knowing a word of English, where he lived, his real first name, or his last name. Teachers had to search the school for someone who knew the child so they could figure out how to contact his family. Language, says Wallace, is just one of the issues teachers deal with in Holyoke, in addition to poverty, drugs, gang-riddled streets, and unstable home lives.

“If you wonder why MCAS scores are so low, well, let’s look at transiency,” she says, noting that parents often pull their children out of school in the middle of the year for several months to return to Puerto Rico. “They’re here in September, gone in November, tested in March. Gee, they’re not passing the MCAS. I wonder why.”

Wallace also says that children who are absent for long periods often lose whatever English-language skills they had acquired. “Sometimes a kid will be with us five years, be in the mainstream classes, and then goes back to Puerto Rico. When he comes back, we have to start from three-quarters of the way.”

“Educational resources for the family are a big obstacle,” Hakuta says. “In California, the other groups who are having difficulty are the Southeast Asian, the Hmong and Laotian and Cambodian students. It really is a family, socioeconomic status level issue.”

Talk to anyone working with Latino kids around the state, and it’s clear that even if all these kids learned English overnight, they’d still be facing big obstacles. Ellen Jackson says the Holyoke district needs more pre-school programs to make up for the tremendous deficits the kids have when they arrive at school.


It may not just be bilingual education that’s the problem for Latino students, who are among the poorest members of Massachusetts’s poorest cities. After all, about three-quarters of the state’s 100,000 Hispanic students are not enrolled in bilingual education at all (although some undetermined number of them undoubtedly started in Spanish-language classrooms). Many have always had nothing but English-only classes.

Lawrence Boys and Girls Club director Steve Kelley has no use for bilingual education. “Don’t ask me what I think of it,” he says. “It’s unprintable.” He says he’s seen far too many cases of students, including the young men he raised, languishing in bilingual-education classes long after they could speak English.

Back in the early 1980s, however, Kelley found himself stumped by what seemed to be a different problem. Two Latino students he knew, graduating seniors at Central Catholic High School, had earned what Kelley saw as the Ticket Up: scholarships to Brandeis University. Both kids turned them down.

“When I asked them why, they said, kids from our neighborhood don’t go to college,” Kelley recalls. In Lawrence, he discovered, it wasn’t cool to be smart.

“I started to think about what your parents do when you’re a kid,” says Kelley. He realized that in families where it’s expected that children will go on to higher education, parents leave nothing to chance. “They brainwash you. It’s not if you’re going to college, but where.”

Kelley, who, with his wife, is the legal guardian of three Latino youths, began a little brainwashing of his own with the kids who hung out at the Boys and Girls Club. He began working with the Marist brothers at Central Catholic High School and with area prep schools like Brooks, Phillips Andover, and Phillips Exeter, which were eager to diversify their student bodies. He started a tutoring program at the club and talked to Latino parents about the importance of education. Those parents talked to other parents. Adelante, a local Latino advocacy group, got involved.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the club has helped to get between 300 and 400 Latino students into some of the top prep schools in eastern New England, and from there on to college. Many go to the nearby University of Massachusetts-Lowell, but many also go to schools like Dartmouth, Holy Cross, Bates, and Bowdoin. One student who could barely speak English when he entered Central Catholic graduated from Middlebury College at the age of 20. About 100 Latino students are attending Central Catholic this year, taking all their coursework in English.

Kelley says that the Lawrence program shows that even those kids most at risk can succeed, in English and in other academics, with enough support–and prodding. That approach has drawn the attention of Janine Bempechat, a Tufts University education consultant, who is following a group of Latino students in Lawrence as they make their way through high school and college. Bempechat, who studies the academic achievements of at-risk and minority children, says students succeed when they have clear and high expectations, and lots of help outside of school. Like it or not, she says, Catholic schools provide a good model.

“What helps kids to do well, especially kids who are at high risk for failure, because of language, poverty, or their minority status, is very high expectations for performance, not only academically, but in their social behavior,” she says. “So even understanding that these students have difficult situations at home, what we find in Catholic schools is that no excuses are made.”

One study of African-American and Latino elementary-school students found that children in Catholic schools had more positive attitudes toward learning than their peers in public schools, says Bempechat.

“They believe that success is due to ability,” she says. “That means that when things get tough, it makes sense for them to invest some effort, because they know they have some ability…. But when you talk to comparable children in public schools, they believe success was due to luck, and failure is due to lack of ability. When you think you’re doing badly because you’re stupid, you’re in bad shape, because it leaves you nowhere else to go.”

It was frustration with Lawrence High School that led Kelley to work with Central Catholic and nearby prep schools. “Instead of being empathetic, in the public schools, they’re sympathetic,” says Kelley. Sympathy, he says, means demanding nothing from students. “It’s one thing to say, it’s too bad your dad’s not at home, but then to not expect them to have their homework done….”

His voice trails off, then he shakes his head. “So the kid says, if that’s all they want, then that’s what I’ll give them.”

Agencies like the Boys and Girls Club are a crucial element in helping at-risk kids succeed, says Bempechat, because they link kids to mentors who can guide them on career choices. “Oftentimes, kids have fabulous expectations, but no idea of how to meet them,” she says. “They want to be a doctor, but then there’s this thing called the MCAS. Mentoring lets them find out what they’re doing, and if they want to be, say, an architect, they’d better get going with their math.”

Charles Glenn agrees that low expectations of Latino kids doesn’t help them.”We are so quick to make excuses to think of all the reasons why these kids don’t achieve, but you can turn around and look at other immigrant groups who were just as poor, who nonetheless do much better,” he says. “I’m so upset about this talk that you can’t expect these kids to do well on the MCAS test.”


Call it campaign posturing, but Lincoln Tamayo doesn’t hesitate for a moment when asked about the outcome of November’s referendum. “I think it will go overwhelmingly,” he says, predicting that the percentage of voter approval will be higher here than in California and Arizona. A poll taken late last year showed the initiative well ahead, 77 percent to 14 percent.

Opponents point out that immigration is not a high-profile issue here, as it is in states along the Mexican border, so voters may shy away from such a drastic change in educational policy. But so far, the alternatives proposed by those unwilling to dismantle bilingual education don’t have the clarity and commonsense appeal of Unz’s English immersion plan, nor have they rallied Unz’s disparate antagonists behind the same flag.

The bill proposed by Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield) and Sen. Robert Antonioni (D-Leominster) would set a three-year limit on bilingual classes and provide better oversight of local programs by creating an office of language acquisition in the state Department of Education. It would also mandate annual student testing and require the certification of bilingual-education teachers. But this proposal has drawn fire from bilingual-ed advocates on the grounds that it gives school superintendents, rather than parents, control over what kind of bilingual programs their children have access to. Swift’s proposal would allow for some parental input into the type of programs their children would attend, but slap a tougher cap of two years on bilingual classes.

“This is not a time to compromise.
We’ve had 30 years of failure.”

Meanwhile, the Unz coalition is in no mood to strike a deal. “This is not a time to compromise,” says Tamayo. “We’ve had 30 years of abject failure. At what point are the politicians finally going to understand?” In an e-mail blast, Unz likened both Republican and Democratic plans to King Solomon’s compromise-to-end-all-compromises, heading his message “Slicing Babies in Half in Massachusetts.”

When the time comes, it’s hard not to believe that voters will make their decision based on their own experiences, or the stories they’ve heard about going into a McDonald’s and being unable to communicate with the kid behind the counter. For native-born Americans, the prescription for immigrants is always close at hand: If they’re going to live in this country, why don’t they learn English?

“That’s what people said about Italians in the 1920s,” says Kenji Hakuta. It takes about a generation and a half before an ethnic group fully assimilates, he says, and despite the stereotype, Latinos are on track. We lose sight of that, he says, because of the number of new immigrants from Spanish-speaking homelands who arrive each year.

What’s less clear is whether the Latino students in Massachusetts schools are on track–and whether replacing traditional bilingual education with English immersion ? la Unz will put them there. If the goal is integrating newer immigrants into the mainstream of the state’s work force and civic life, reforming bilingual education may be just the beginning, not the end, of the struggle.

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