Can it be that one of the reasons why inner-city children tend to do poorly in school is bilingual education?

No, not bilingual as in English and Spanish. I mean bilingual as in standard English and the nonstandard English that poor children often bring to school.

The first sort we recognize as a deliberately chosen approach to teaching.
Youngsters whose home language is Spanish are, under the bilingual-ed theory, first taught in Spanish for beginning reading, arithmetic, early social studies and so on. Then, as they master content, they are gradually switched to English. The idea, at least in part, is to honor and build on what the children already know. I suspect something like that is going on in many inner-city schools, where teachers, fearing to make children ashamed of themselves and their families, accept the language they bring to school and try to use it as a base for their teaching. I doubt that this second sort of bilingual ed involves much pedagogical theorizing. It probably has more to do with the feeling that these youngsters have it tough enough already without the added indignity of forcing them to “talk white.”

But whether conscious theory or sympathetic practice, bilingual ed may not be the best approach to helping children who don’t speak standard English to become successful in school.

My doubts on this score were confirmed a year ago in a newspaper article written by Ken Noonan, superintendent of schools in Oceanside, Calif., but more relevantly, a former bilingual teacher who was a spirited campaigner against California’s Proposition 227 forbidding bilingual ed in the state.

When the proposition passed, Noonan at first resisted implementing it, but finally — reluctantly — gave in. Then:

“At the end of the first year, I was amazed by the results. State tests showed dramatic academic gains for Spanish-speaking students in reading and writing — especially in the early grades, where we had reduced class size to 20 or fewer students and implemented phonics reading instruction. . . .
Without 227, we would have been teaching these students in Spanish; they would certainly have performed poorly on the state tests, which are administered in English. And we never would have seen how quickly and how early they could learn to read English.”

Something similar could happen for urban and rural poor children — if we could see the similarity to bilingual education in the present approach. The difficulty is that the language these children speak is sufficiently close to the standard English of the educated classes that we think of it not in terms of a different language but as a marker for class or race. We don’t see the urgency of switching these kids to (standard) English because we think they already speak English.

But the English they speak is usually not the English of their texts — or of their tests. We tell ourselves that because they speak the language well enough to be understood, it’s better to get them used to expressing their thoughts — in whatever dialect — than to shame them into silence. Or we say we’ll teach them proper English later, after they’ve gained confidence in their ability to learn. And we let them go on using their “home” language in a sort of unintended bilingual ed.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see what would happen if an inner-city school decreed an end to bilingual education, instituting instead a requirement that only standard English would be used in the classroom?

Would the children clam up, or would they take to the “new” language with the alacrity of California’s Hispanic kids? And if it started in first grade and remained consistent, would they internalize the language we associate with smart people?

And isn’t the likelihood that the results would show up, not only on the standardized tests that everybody seems to be pushing these days but also in the children’s confidence of expression, in their ability to glean meaning from the printed page and in their ability to impress others with their intelligence?

A voluntary Prop 227 won’t fix everything. Smaller class sizes, phonics and other reforms played a part in California. But ending bilingual ed helped,
too. Won’t some inner-city principal be bold enough to try it?

Comments are closed.