Bilingualgate: Critique of Bilingual Education

A Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) substitute teacher describes his experiences with students in the LAUSD's elementary bilingual education programs. He claims that most children in the program have below grade-level language skills, and are

I began my association with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in January 1990, as an elementary substitute school teacher. I continue in that position today.

One of the advantages a substitute teacher has over regular teachers, theorists, administrators, members of the school board, or ethnic activists is that every day he or she experiences how the system works (or doesn’t) in a variety of classrooms and schools. Substitute teachers such as myself find themselves involved at all levels, Ko6, including Learning Handicapped and Special Education. They have a distinct perspective on teachers, principals, and the system at large.

LAUSD teaches English as a second language. When I first started teaching, my excitement for the bilingual program was great. That all changed, however, when I began to experience its effects.

I teach in schools that are 85 -90 percent Hispanic. I have taught on hundreds of different levels in hundreds of different classrooms. My conclusion: the bilingual system doesn’t work and, in fact, deters Hispanic students from advancement and from integration into American society. In many cases, LAUSD’ s “transitional” bilingual program acts as a pink-slip, minimum-wage, welfare straitjacket for the child living in the barrio. If he or she can’t read English, there will be no leaving the barrio.

South Los Angeles’s poverty rate is higher now than at the time of the 1965 Watts riots. It is nearly three times higher than the national average. Hispanic families are the poorest ethnic group in the United States. With 28 percent below the poverty line, they more than double the national poverty rate of 13.5 percent. According to the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based public-policy group, Hispanics “are the least educated major population in the United States .” Even after twenty years of bilingual programs, as a group they have the highest school dropout rate (one in five).

Unfortunately, I see these statistics substantiated every day in the LAUSD. Each week I have a new fifth- or sixth-grade class somewhere in the Los Angeles area. A frighteningly large number of my students, including those born in the United States and those who have lived here for many years, lack all sense of sentence structure. They cannot identify a verb or spell such words as “his,” “would,” and “tree,” and they are unable to recognize these words on a written page. They are light years away from having fifth- or sixth-grade composition skills in either Spanish or English. Simply put, even though these children were born here or have lived here many years, they are not being taught English.

The bilingual program is a form of permanent cultural impairment for Hispanics and a waste of millions of dollars for taxpayers. But it is a big moneymaker for the school system, and an incentive for bilingual teachers (they receive cash bonuses). One principal showed me the school budget. The schools can get up to $ 500 for each child they sign up for the bilingual program. Consequently, children are pushed to enroll. Most will remain in the program throughout their elementary school years, as there are only two ways to transfer to an English-only class: (1) with permission from the parents (rarely a consideration); (2) if the child passes a rigorous examination in Spanish. (The examination is so difficult that many Spanish-speaking teachers told me they might fail it.)

Once, when teaching at Betty Plensencia Avenue School, I asked a teacher at lunch what she thought of the bilingual system. Fear came over her face and she whispered, “We have a principal who is very pro-bilingual and I can’t say anything bad about the bilingual system or I might get fired.”

One day I was called to Solono Avenue, a school I had never been to before. It turned out to be a first-grade class, with a good mix of Asian and Hispanic students. Literally, every first-grader in that class could read English out loud proficiently. I gave them a follow-up writing assignment, and couldn’t get over how bright and articulate they were. During the break, I asked the other teachers if I had been assigned to a gifted class. I will never forget their
reaction: They all laughed at me! They said that I was teaching at an all-English-speaking school, and that I had actually been in a slow-learning class. I have yet to experience another first-grade class that is so adept and articulate.

Advocates for the bilingual system claim that the system helps the children’s self-esteem. In reality, it helps the child’ s “comfort,” but rarely his or her long-term self-esteem. This is evident not only in the high dropout rate among Hispanics, but in the fact that as they grow older these children realize the importance of speaking English. My observation is that because of safe harboring in the bilingual system, these students actually exhibit lower self-esteem.

What many people fail to realize is the power of one language. The strength is in the unity it creates. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. It’s not bad to know and to speak more than one language. But when a bilingual system creates separate pockets of people in American society, then we are no longer a melting pot but something closer to a a boiling stew, ready to explode through the heat of prejudice, miscommunication, economic and social fragmentation. A common language is a remarkable social inheritance. Perhaps James A. Michener said it best through his character Roy Aspen in the 1985 novel, Texas: “For a nation like the United States, which has a workable central tongue used by many countries around the world, consciously to introduce linguistic separatism and to encourage it by the expenditure of public funds is to create and encourage a danger which could, in time, destroy this nation as other nations with linguistic problems have been destroyed.”

In the fast-paced world of tomorrow, today’ s students will need to be able to write and speak with fluency if they are to compete. They will need to be able to complete a detailed application to get into college or to get a job; they will need to be able to speak well enough to complain about an injustice or to express their views credibly. They will need all these if they are to have a reasonable hope of enriching their lives. Instead, the LAUSD is graduating an over-abundance of ill-prepared, future low-income wage earners. JACK FREIBERGER

Jack Freiberger is a free-lance writer who lives in Studio City, California.

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