”Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education,” documents in detail what many victims know all too well: that so-called bilingual education is pedagogically unsound and is perpetuated in the teeth of the evidence by one of the “iron triangles” that clutter the political scene.
Bureaucrats, political leaders whose careers depend on the maintenance of a discontented underclass, and certain teachers and professional ethnic ideologues combine to force on the public schools something called Transitional Bilingual
Education (TBE) which, at its worst, creates s%gregated disadvantaged classes that are part of the American system of apartheid.
The author, Rosalie Pedalino Porter, in criticizing an extreme bilingual proposal, remarks:
“In South Africa, . . . the imposition of mother-tongue instruction . . . is used as a way of maintaining the isolation of black South Africans and denying them economic opportunity.”
The preceding paragraph is harsh, and neglects the good intentions of many who support the bilingual movement. But good intentions are not enough. The announced intent of TBE is to lead limited-English students into the mainstream of English language instruction in public schools. In fact, nearly every serious evaluation shows that it is among the least-effective means to that end.
Those limited-English students who do well in the schools, especially Asians, reject TBE. Mrs. Porter quotes a revealing fact about some bilingual teacher colleagues in Springfield, Mass.:
” . . . they did not enroll their children in the public schools but were struggling to pay the tuition required for parochial school. When I asked if they preferred to have their children receive a religious education, they said no, that they wanted their children in the parochial school because it did not have a bilingual program and therefore the children were learning English rapidly.”
Why, then, has the bilingual fad lasted so long? Largely, no doubt, because entrenched interest groups can exercise great leg I ;V din public education. But also, I suspect, because knee-jerk liberals are easy prey of any group that claims to have been treated unjustly and, alas, that claims to have discovered a remedy.
If I were to choose the most shocking section of “Forked Tongue,” it would be Chapter 2, “Confronting the Political Power of the Bilingual Bureaucracy,” in which the author describes her own ordeal and the cynical mendacity of the bilingual bureaucracy of Massachusetts in the “auditing” of Newton School District’s successful alternative to TBE for helping limited-English students. Seldom has the dictatorial arrogance of the educational bureaucracy been so ruthlessly exposed.
Mrs. Porter took charge of the Newton limited-English program in 1980. It consisted of some 400 youngsters in a school population of 8,000. These students fell into three main groups: refugees from Southeast Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and Central America; working-class immigrants from Italy and China; a transitional population of upper middle-class children of visiting scholars and professionals from Israel, Japan, Scandinavia and other areas.
The program Mrs. Porter developed is described in a later chapter. She had to deal with 27 foreign language groups, including Pushtu, Farsi, Mandarin, Cantonese, Khmer and Bengali. Part of the program was a brief period of TBE, but the main and highly effective program was English as a Second Language (ESL), in which “early immersion” from age 3 or 4 was a crucial part.
The Massachusetts bilingual establishment early perceived Mrs. Porter as a subversive threat, since she suggested openly that there were alternatives to TBE. Officials in the State Department of Education tried to block her Doctor of Education degree in 1982 on the grounds that it would be “damaging to the field of bilingual education.”
Then came the onslaught: the “audit” of the Newton program in 1983. The main gravamen was that not enough foreign language was being used. The success of the program was irrelevant, as was the enthusiasm of parents of bilingual students. State funds were withdrawn, but Newton, to its eternal credit, went on with its program at local expense.
Another aspect of “Forked Tongue,” equally guaranteed to make the blood boil, is its account of the misuse and distortion of “research” in the topic. Mrs. Porter sums up: “The . . . argument [for TBE] is still a hypothesis in search of legitimacy.”
This review does not do justice to Mrs. Porter’s many insights. The aim here has been simply to outline the devastating indictment of the selfish, politically motivated militants who hold many students, mainly Hispanic, back from success in the mainstream of American life.
No doubt bilingual education is only one among many political distractions that have ruined public education. But bilingual education is especially poignant by reason of its impact on vulnerable disadvantaged students who need help, not harassment.
Raymond English is guest scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
FORKED TONGUE: THE POLITICS OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION
By Rosalie Pedalino Porter
Basic Books, $22.95, 285 pages