If Kids Don't Learn, More, Not Less, is the Answer

We should quit teaching math in public schools.

High school sophomores failed the math portion of that last AIMS test miserably.

Clearly, they aren’t learning math. Let’s quit teaching it. Or,
better yet, let’s throw the kids into one class and make them learn everything they need to know about math in one year.

A terrible idea, right?

So, why do folks point to the poor academic performance of bilingual education students as a reason we should scrap bilingual education or put limits on how long students can stay in the program?

It is one of the more common arguments: The kids are underperforming, ergo bilingual education isn’t working.

Recently, a distinguished scholar on bilingual education, came to visit at Arizona State University. Kenji Hakuta is a professor of education at Stanford University. He is much published on the topic.

Some conclusions I reached after his well-attended talk:

* The research indicates that bilingual education works better than English-only programs for students with limited English proficiency.

* Time limits on how long students should stay in bilingual education programs should be dictated by need, not unresearched artifice or politics. (“It’s a regressive kind of policy,” he said.
“You’re removing the program from those who need it most.”

* Bilingual education students generally underperform academically compared to native English speakers.

It’s this last point that gets the “aha!” from bilingual ed opponents who take it as proof that the program isn’t working.

But, here’s the rest of the story.

About three-quarters of bilingual education students in this country are poor and attend high-poverty schools. Their parents generally have lower levels of education themselves. It’s likely no different in Arizona.

Here’s the sad, sad reality. Statistically and historically, poor students whose parents have little schooling generally do more poorly in school than other students. I wish it weren’t so, but there it is.

Please, don’t call me with the success stories, the ones about poor students who do well against all odds or how your parents came from Germany and you did just fine.

I love hearing them, but you don’t have to convince me that there are plenty of exceptional kids out there and that poverty isn’t necessarily a life sentence.

The point is, there’s just one thing we can conclude about statistics that show bilingual education students underperform: If you come from what the academics call a language minority, are poor and attend schools that are falling down around you, you have more to worry about than whether you ran spell-check on your homework.

OK, so bilingual ed, like poverty, shouldn’t be a life sentence either, folks say.

Let’s go to the research. In a briefing paper Hakuta presented to congressional leaders, he concluded that oral proficiency – which I take to mean learning conversational English – takes three to five years to develop. But academic English proficiency – having the skills necessary to read, write, take tests and learn in class –
takes four to seven years to acquire for the non-English speaker.

And if you factor in serious socio-economic factors, there just really isn’t any magic number for mastering English.

Yet, California’s Prop. 227, which Arizona’s anti-bilingual ed folks have heralded as the model to use for a proposed ballot initiative here this year, mandates a one-year cap. And last year,
our very own Legislature was kicking around caps ranging from two to four years.

But here’s another sad fact. Bilingual education is indeed broken.
It’s just not broken in the way opponents believe. It’s underfunded.
It’s broken for lack of commitment, not too much of it.

A federal judge in Tucson ruled in January that Arizona has violated civil rights and equal opportunity laws by underfunding programs for students with limited English proficiency. He ordered that the state correct the problem, but set no timetable.

Less than a week after the ruling, the Arizona Senate’s Education Committee voted down a bill that would have boosted funding from $162 per student to $621.

I suspect that Arizona is no exception in underfunding bilingual education. In the interim, the number of kids needing bilingual ed is increasing, meaning that what little we spend now has to be spread thinner.

It’s sad.

If a kid isn’t learning, let’s give him less education. If a kid is failing because he isn’t being taught, let’s blame the kid. And,
if a school finds it has trouble teaching while entangled in a financial strait jacket, let’s call them incompetent.

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