English in Our Schools

A U.S. district judge in Michigan has handed down a decision that could lead to new and pervasive federal intervention in local schools.

So far, it means only that one elementary school in Ann Arbor will have to educate teachers in “black English,” so that they can better understand and fairly evaluate students who speak this dialect.

But experience indicates that the eventual result might be a requirement for such students all over the country to be taught in classes that use the dialect
— with guidelines and manuals, elaborate forms to be filled out and a network of national and regional monitors.

That may not take place. We hope not. It is close, however, to what has happened wth students whose native languages are foreign. Federal controls grow by processes no always seen or understood by the people of the U.S., and it is fair to ask if what the people get is what they really want.

Bilingual-education arguments stem from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which

“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

In the Great Society days of Lyndon Johnson, many thought this meant just that you had to treat everybody the same. But the Department of Health, Education and Welfare reasoned that schools must therefore give special aid to non-English-speaking students so that they could take advantage of the education offered.

In 1974 the Supreme Court concurred. And though the Court did not grant it in specific words, HEW took the ruling as authority to require that schools not only teach children to understand English but, meanwhile andfor a fairly extended period, teach them general subjects in their original tongues, so that they would not fall behind. Withdrawal of every type of federal aid — even down to school lunches — can be the penalty for violation.

Effects of this approach have brought trauma to school boards and superintendents already wrestling with heavy problems. One Eastern district, for instance, enrolls students speaking 50 foreign languages, about half of these in numbers high enough to come under HEW requirements. The district would be hard put to find teachers of all these languages, and it has estimated the cost of meeting HEW demands at 5 million dollars a year. Local authorities were proud of their program to aid foreign-speakers, but HEW said it would no do.

HEW’s bureaucrats have been spreading paper work, uncertainty and disruption. It’s time for them to take a new look at the best interests of the children and the country.

Any prospect for teaching in black English lacks unanimous favor among black leaders. Some fear that it would handicap blacks by diminishing their grasp of the standard anguage they need for advancement.

Surveys fail to prove that a child gets ahead faster if taght in his or her original language. They do show that the child lags in English, lacking the incentive to learn.

Thus, although we share some of the concerns of HEW, we question whether bilingual teaching is inevitable, whether it has to be so widespread or last so long and whether legally or morally the law has to be so drastically interpreted. The country already exhibits tendencies to break up into minorities that speak their own languages and live to themselves. There are persons who hail this as progress toward a plural society, but what it may really amount to is a hodgepodge that can’t work together as a nation.

That is why we would like to hope that HEW, in its current review of policy, will try to reverse the trend to separatsm: Shorten dependency on bilingual classes and switch the emphasis toward teaching of English.

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