The state board of education California is promising that early next year it will take a look at bilingual education programs in the public schools, and possibly recommend changes. No doubt, board members feel the heat from the so far successful drive, spearheaded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, to put on the ballot an initiative that eliminates bilingual education in the state.
Now the bilingual education establishment has to worry not only about Unz, but also about the California board. No one should be surprised if it finds that students are kept too long in bilingual education classes,
and recommends that they spend less time.
Some weeks back, a report by the California Educational Research Cooperative at the University of California, Riverside, concluded LEP students need 10 years to achieve native fluency in writing, reading and speaking English.
In other words, the study says that an immigrant child who does not know English upon enrolling in a U.S. second grade still needs to be in bilingual classes when a senior in high school.
Is this an attempt at a serious study or a ploy to keep bilingual teachers employed? Even if the authors did attempt a serious study, they failed miserably.
It simply does not take a decade for a child to be proficient in English.
But it does take time. Which is why the real crisis facing California is not this outlandish study, but the upheaval that will result if Unz has his way. If he does, subjects like algebra, history and biology would be taught only in English for every student regardless of his or her ability to speak English. How can that possibly make sense? In what conceivable way is it good public policy to put non-English speaking teenagers in classes where they cannot understand the teacher? In what conceivable way does it help these kids?
Perhaps a way to take the steam out of Unz’ proposal is for educators not to wait until LEP students speak flawless English before mainstreaming them to English-language classrooms. Once a student understands the teacher and can write a decent essay in English (how many native English speakers can do that?), he or she can begin taking academic courses in English with everyone else, but still remain in a specialized, intensive English course for non-English speakers.
Unz’ proposed ballot question also threatens the elimination of what educators term the "dual-language" model of bilingual education.
In schools that offer this (no more than a handful across the country) all students, even native English speakers, take courses in two languages. So while in traditional bilingual programs the goal is help LEP students keep up with their subjects while they learn English, the goal of dual-language programs is to make every student fluent in two languages. In what way is this objectionable?
A couple of weeks ago, the New York state Board of Regents rejected a plan to make students proficient in two languages by the time they graduate from high school. Too challenging, was the complaint. But kids in many countries learn English as well as their own language by the time they finish their local equivalent of high school. This is one reason why businessmen the world over are bilingual, while the majority of their American counterparts are not. Why expect less from American kids?
They screwed up in New York. Now an educational bureaucracy on the other side of the country has an opportunity to do the right thing. The dual-language option should be available for those who want it. Immigrant kids who don’t speak English should not be forced to sit in classrooms where they can’t understand the teacher. But neither should immigrant kids be forced to stay in traditional bilingual education programs when they don’t need to. It’s a balance hat needs to be struck if Unz’ march toward classroom chaos is to be slowed.