Some sage – or wag – observed that the causes of most problems are “solutions.” A decision to juice up your goozungus by adding a spibble invariably requires having to recalibrate the fimmel assembly to balance the new spibble and then …

Take, for example, the issue of bilingual education. In a San Francisco case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that Chinese students were being discriminated against by the schools, since they didn’t understand the language used in the classroom: English. Do something, the court solemnly decreed.

Bilingualism became the solution. Teaching children in their native tongue, with English as a supplement, would help the youngsters move briskly into regular classes, argued the educrats.

The Carter administration and Congress, urged on by theorists and ethnic advocates, eagerly piled aboard this bus, requiring that 75 percent of classroom time for children with inadequate English be conducted in their native tongue. Thus it remains.

There were voices that suggested, to little effect, that bilingualism might not be a panacea, that well-tried programs such as English as a Second Language should not be disdained.

Nevertheless, a significant and vocal bilingual industry blossomed, as usually happens when the fertilizer of federal bucks is applied. Orthodoxy developed quickly, too. Those who dissented were likely to find themselves castigated as racists and jingoists and probably as supporters of high-fat diets.

Attack in that mode, of course, freezes argument and perpetuates programs that are unable to produce even marginally satisfactory results. That’s been the track record for bilingual education.

Increasingly, however, the data show that this teaching technique is, not to put too fine a point on it, deficient. One opposition group, called READ, or Research in English Acquisition and Development, contends that bilingualism as mandated has promoted “segregation” and inadequate schooling for the 3 million students from 150 different language backgrounds who are being herded along by federal regulation and ethno-political zealots.

Absurdity, of course, never just lies there in the road: Now the Education Department is thinking (if that’s the word) that it would be spiffy to give mathematics exams in Spanish as part of the annual national assessment.

The bilingual brigade is starting to encounter some reality bumps, though. There’s a notable report on native-language instruction in the New York City
schools: The bilingual premise that students taught in their own language will maintain standards in academic subjects and speedily acquire English simply has not been the case.

The New York study found that 80 percent of students in special English programs were able to move to regular classes within two to three years, compared with a little over 50 percent in bilingual teaching. A similar disparity was found in El Paso, Texas.

In California, a proposal to end two decades of bilingual concentration is being hotly debated. A state commission in 1993 found the technique has been “as much a problem as a solution.”

The General Accounting Office last year noted a dramatic increase in the numbers of limited-English students and the variety of languages – up to 90 in one school district. Can the most sanguine soul believe that anything approaching efficiency can be achieved in an arena like that?

Even on Capitol Hill, there is a ripple of attention to the imperialism of bilingual education, but the howl will be fierce should the ripple show signs of becoming a wave of reform.

In our increasingly fractionated society, a dominant element in the passionate support for bilingualism is to retain and reinforce native cultures. And make no mistake – there’s as much politics as pedagogy in the stew.

But when the children of immigrants are in fact penalized by an ideological construct, impeded from moving into the wider economic and political environment, something is dreadfully awry.

During the decades of intense immigration at the turn of the century, a concept called “Americanization” was common – with schools, civic and social groups and business organizations taking part. The intent was not to eradicate native cultures or tongues; it was to equip immigrants with the prime tool of social navigation – the English language.

Shortly before World War I, a school official in Washington defined Americanization as the effort to teach immigrants “facility in speaking and writing English, yet in doing this we endeavor earnestly to instruct them in the geography and history of the United States, and to create in them a love for their adopted country.”

Well, it’s a new world, we are told. There should be commitment, though, to apply that affecting sentiment in the schools. Or so one might suppose.



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