For Kids Who Don't Know English, The Trouble Begins Now

Well, what now? After a Federal judge in California last week denied a motion to block Proposition 227 from going into effect,
bilingual education will almost certainly be dead in the state when the school year starts.

It won’t be pretty. The new law requires one year of immersion in English for the 1.4 million students classified as Limited English Proficient. That’s on paper. There are lots of questions about what that means in practice.

Under one scenario contemplated by school districts, students will spend the entire year learning to speak and write the English language and nothing but.

In such a case, what happens to the rest of the curriculum? What about history, science, math? How can these kids keep up with their grade level on the other academic subjects if they study only language for one year?
What happens after that one year, when they are supposedly proficient enough to be mainstreamed?

Assuming some will indeed be linguistically ready for “regular”
classes, do they get put back a grade so they can catch up on the other subjects? Do they get put back two grades? Or do they remain at their age-appropriate grade level even though they do not have the skills or knowledge necessary to compete with students who have had grounding on the other academic subjects?

One way or the other, the kids lose.

That’s assuming they manage to learn good English in one year. What if they do not? It is not impossible for younger kids to be ready, but it is absurd to expect that every teenager will be. What happens to them, then?
Will they be forced to spend the following year in mainstream classrooms even if they do not know English well enough to understand a lecture on algebra or write an essay on George Washington? To what point?

Again, the kids lose.

Under a second scenario, LEP students will be taught not just English
, but the full curriculum as well. This is supposed to be accomplished by teachers using what education theorists call “sheltered English.”
The idea is no less alarming than the notion of teaching only English-language skills for one year.

How can even the most fundamental concepts in history, or math, or science be taught by instructors who use a rudimentary kind of English designed for students who do not know the language? How far can basic words and hand signals go? Doesn’t this also condemn students to fall behind their English-speaking peers in academic subjects? And in what possible way is this better than teaching those basic subjects in a language the kids can understand, which is after all what bilingual education is supposed to be?

One more time, the kids lose.

And why? Because the voters of California overreacted to a problem. Kids who are learning English have indeed not been served by educrats who insist,
against all common sense that it takes a decade for them to master the language,
and that teenagers learn faster than young children . But doing away with bilingual education altogether will make things even worse.

Unfortunately, there is so much linguistic animosity, so much ethnic tension in California that voters decided to send out a message: We don’t want Spanish here, we don’t want immigrants here, so there: No more bilingual ed.

Of course, not everyone who voted for the measure was driven by sinister motives. Some honestly believed that getting rid of bilingual education was the best strategy for helping immigrants kids learn English. Certainly Ron Unz — the man behind the movement — did his best to distance the campaign from immigrant bashing.

But the climate was ugly enough to prevent even well-intentioned Californians from understanding the impact their vote would have come September — on actual classrooms, on real flesh and blood kids. Bilingual education in California needed to be fixed, not destroyed.


Roger Hern?ndez is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in-
Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at

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