In Massachusetts there are 45,000 children, most of them Latino, who are unable to do their regular schoolwork in English.

About 38,000 of these students are enrolled in bilingual education programs that teach them all their subjects in their native language and give them English lessons on the side. (The state’s current law mandates that school districts provide these programs only if they have 20 or more students who are not proficient in English and who share the same native language.) Students stay in these bilingual programs for three years or longer — until they are ready to be “mainstreamed” into English-speaking classrooms. But there are many children in Massachusetts who finish elementary school without the English skills necessary to make that transition.

In November, voters will decide whether or not to replace this law with one that would require schools to teach all of those 45,000 children almost entirely in English for one year, using methods specifically designed for students who are learning English as a second language. All children would enter the mainstream classroom after that first year, but additional help would be available as long as a child might need it.

The ballot initiative is sponsored by the English for the Children Campaign; the same organization championed initiatives that ousted bilingual education programs in California in 1998, and in Arizona in 2000 — both times by landslide votes. This year Colorado will have an English for the Children initiative on its ballot as well.

I recently interviewed Dr. Rosalie Pedalino Porter, a co-chair of the Massachusetts campaign. Once an enthusiastic proponent of bilingual education, she is now one of its most vocal and active challengers.

“I started at the beginning of the whole [bilingual education] enterprise,” Porter says. “I began as a true believer, and I changed my mind.”

Rosalie Porter came from Italy to New Jersey when she was 6 years old and entered first grade at Newark’s Elliot Street School without knowing a single word of English. Being immersed in a sea of strange sounds — a classroom where no one was inclined (much less prepared) to give her special help in learning a new language — was painful and frustrating. She doesn’t recall exactly how she became fluent in English, but within two years she was completely comfortable speaking it.

Porter’s difficulties as an immigrant schoolchild have fostered a distinguished career in education: as a Spanish/bilingual teacher in Springfield and a director of bilingual education programs in Newton, Mass.; as an education-reform advocate who has lectured, debated and moderated at national and international symposiums and panels concerned with teaching children a non-native language; as the director of the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development (READ), an educational think tank that supports the study of effective schooling for the nation’s “English-needy” children.

What’s the goal driving all of Porter’s endeavors? To help schools provide students who are not proficient in English with the best possible chance of getting an education — an education equal to that of their nativeEnglish-speaking peers. As increasing numbers of immigrant, migrant and refugee children from increasingly diverse language backgrounds vie for that equal educational opportunity, her goal becomes ever more challenging.

Porter, an expert on the nation’s 30-year experiment in bilingual education, speaks animatedly about why she believes the experiment has failed.

Bilingual education programs evolved as the civil rights movement’s push on behalf of non-English speaking immigrant children finally came to shove. Teachers and administrators long knew that students who were limited-English proficient (LEP) — that’s the “educationese” for kids who aren’t capable of doing their schoolwork in English — were not receiving adequate schooling. Indeed, Porter says, they were being labeled as retarded, or being punished for using their native language in the classroom, or simply being left to fend for themselves. By the late 1960s the federal government passed legislation to set guidelines and provide funding for bilingual education programs.

In 1971 Massachusetts became the first state to vote a bilingual education program into law. Porter, by then fluent in Spanish, was finishing her undergraduate degree at UMass Amherst. She studied a variety of relevant subjects (the history of the Caribbean, psycholinguistics, multicultural sensitivity, and the phonetics of Spanish and English, for instance) to become a bilingual teacher. In 1974 she took a job at Springfield’s Armory Street School where she spent part of the day with kindergartners and part of the day with fifth- and sixth-graders — teaching both groups most of the time in Spanish, as the law required.

Gradually, in the course of her five years at the Armory School, she began to doubt the effectiveness of bilingual education. She noticed that students taught in their native language weren’t making rapid enough progress in English, and the longer they took, the longer they stayed segregated from their English-speaking peers. Some of her fifth- and sixth-grade students who had lived in Springfield all their lives had still not learned enough English to be taught math or science in it. In some cases, she felt that by following the rules of the bilingual curriculum — that is, by requiring kindergartners to answer questions in Spanish, even though they could respond in English — she was deliberately thwarting their English- language learning progress.

When she interviewed the mostly Spanish-speaking parents of her students, they did not demand native-language instruction. They asked only that their children learn English (and learn their school subjects in English) so well that they would have opportunities many immigrants of her own generation were denied.

The prevailing “wisdom” behind bilingual education — that children learn best in the language they know best (that is to say, their native tongue) — flew in the face of her classroom experience. On her own, she began to introduce intensive sessions to build up the students’ skills in speaking, reading and writing in English. She introduced content-based language teaching in the classroom, conducting science experiments, giving cooking lessons and setting up a classroom grocery store — all in English — so that the children learned subject matter at the same time that they learned second-language skills.

She was convinced that bilingual education, which seemed like a good, progressive idea at the time of its inception, needed reform; it had grown out of social policy, not tested learning theory.

In fact, bilingual education has never proved to be an effective teaching method.

Over $100 million has been spent during the last 30 years to assess the value of bilingual education, according to a federal study conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. (That NRC study itself cost taxpayers $500,000.)

“The study looked at 30 years of bilingual research and came up with two stunning conclusions,” Porter says. “The first was that there is no evidence that a program of native language instruction has greater benefits than any other kind of program. And the second was that teaching children to read in English first, instead of in their native language, does not have negative consequences. In other words, you do not have to learn to read in Spanish first and then transfer your reading skills to English. Those are the two big, big conclusions of the National Research Council that really should have had some effect on the public discussion, but haven’t had enough [effect]. You know, the people who put that study together are all bilingual education supporters, but they had to admit they hadn’t found the evidence.”

In 1980, Porter was hired to direct the bilingual and English as a Second Language programs in the Newton, Mass., public schools. At the time, the district enrolled limited-English children from 30 different language groups (including Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and Greek) and a variety of social and economic backgrounds.

Teachers, administrators and the school committee all agreed that the district needed to find a more effective way of teaching a multilingual school population. So Porter began to implement a program that departed from the basic assumptions of bilingual education. It included a larger proportion of intensive English-language instruction and a smaller proportion of native- language use, depending on students’ individual needs. It integrated bilingual with native-English- speaking students in regular classrooms for a bigger part of every day to integrate them with the school community and to expose them to more English in both formal and informal settings.

The program was a success. Bilingual students were learning English, earning good grades in other subjects and participating in school activities. Their parents felt well served, Porter says. The public supported the program. But the Newton schools were audited in 1983 by the state’s Bilingual Bureau and found to be in non-compliance with the law. In a 65-page document, one central complaint emerged: They were not teaching the children enough hours a day in Chinese, Italian or Spanish.

Newton began a long and ultimately unsuccessful process of appeals. The district filed a waiver request with the Bilingual Bureau to allow Newton to modify the program officially. Before the bureau passed the waiver on to the State Board of Education as an appeal, it advised the district to survey the parents of bilingual students to see if they preferred the conventional bilingual program or Newton’s modified version. The parents voted unanimously for Newton’s.

When the bureau received the results of the survey, they said that because the parents had voted against bilingual education in favor of a program that didn’t have the state’s approval, Newton was no longer required by law to have a bilingual program. In a classic “Catch-22,” the state cut off funding for Newton’s bilingual students.

Porter began to realize that political agendas could overpower educational innovation and that native-language instruction was becoming a goal in itself rather than a means to a better education for limited-English children.

In her book Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education, first published in 1990 — a second edition, with updated statistical studies, came out in 1996 — Porter wrote that the Newton experience represented “the defensiveness of the bilingual education establishment and the damaging power of … [its] ideology.”

Indeed, says Dr. Porter today, “Once you establish something by law, give it its own money, and positions and power, it’s very hard to make a change. Bureaucracies tend to protect their own interests; they perpetuate themselves.” It’s natural, she says, that advocates for bilingual education want to preserve the jobs, the money and the control that come with such large-scale programs. But in no community where bilingual programs have been exchanged for English-language programs have teachers been laid off; instead, teachers are retrained.

“You can’t fix this with band-aids any more,” she says. “The only way we can have change is to take the drastic step of overturning the law.”

Last summer when the English for the Children Campaign filed the petition to get its initiative on this fall’s ballot, Rosalie Porter was there on Beacon Hill.

The English for the Children Campaign calls its program “sheltered English immersion.” Sheltered is the key word here. The program would not leave children to “sink or swim,” as many of its opponents claim. Bilingual teacher aides can help in the classroom if there are students who are totally non-English speaking — if, for instance, a child just arrived from Guatemala last week — and such help can be most beneficial as an immersion program gets under way. If the classroom includes only speakers of one native language, the initiative allows for the judicious use of that native language when it can help get something across more effectively — a word or phrase in teaching children directions or a new subject, perhaps — or in an emergency situation. The goal is to reduce the use of the native language as quickly as practicable.

As the debate over English immersion intensifies, English for the Children advocates and bilingual education supporters are squaring off over test scores in California, where a million Spanish- speaking students moved from bilingual education programs into sheltered English immersion programs after the initiative passed in 1998.

Figures from the California Department of Education show that the number of kids in English immersion programs who scored over the 50th percentile in reading, math, language and spelling increased dramatically, while the kids who remained in schools that retained their bilingual programs improved far less — and in some cases did worse. In reading, for instance, the percentage of English immersion students who score above the 50th percentile increased from 24 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2001, while the percentage of their bilingual peers who scored in the 50th percentile and above declined from 16 percent in 1998 to 15 percent in 2001.

Bilingual education supporters disparage these results. They charge that California has lowered its test standard; they credit numerous educational reforms the state made for the positive change.

How do English immersion advocates counter these charges?

Dr. Porter agrees there is some merit in them, but she doesn’t let her opponents have the last word.

“All of that is true,” she says. “California put a huge amount of money into the hiring of new teachers to reduce class size.” This applies to all classes, not just English immersion classes. They also threw out a new, but flawed and unsuccessful reading program, she says, and brought back an older, more effective one.

“But bilingual program advocates predicted when the law passed that, because of English immersion, bilingual children wouldn’t even be able to take the state test. They’d be failing by the millions. It hasn’t happened.”

“No one wants to admit this, especially not my friends on the other side. They predicted wholesale failure, saying, ‘This is going to destroy immigrant children…’ But they’re not saying that anymore. They’re saying, ‘Well, of course the kids are doing better because of all these other reasons.'”

Porter gave me a concise summary of other research conducted between 1978 and 1997. It presents some damning evidence about bilingual education nationwide. Here are the highlights:

The American Institute for Research report in 1978 concluded that students in bilingual education programs have less success in learning English than students receiving no help at all.

The Dade County, Fl., Bilingual Curriculum Project found that LEP students learned just as much subject matter when they were taught in English as they did when they were taught in Spanish; there’s no advantage to native-language instruction.

The Rossell-Baker study of 1996, a statistical analysis of academic achievement, concluded from 76 reliable research studies that there is no evidence of superiority of bilingual programs for either teaching English or other school subjects.

The El Paso Bilingual Immersion Project of 1992 reported that in 10 years of study, children in English immersion classes consistently out- performed children in bilingual education classes in learning both English and other school subjects.

“English immersion has been held back for years and years,” Porter says, “but now it’s coming into its own.

Fluency in English is a crucial element in achieving equal opportunities in schooling, in the job market and in the public life of our multicultural American society. So why do many social activists, concerned with helping the poor, defer to the bilingual orthodoxy that slows down English acquisition by immigrant children?

When I attended a debate at Mount Holyoke College on March 27, part of a seminar called Poverty in America, I thought I might find an answer to that question. John Fox, who teaches the class, moderated the debate. Dr. Porter and Catherine Snow, a language-acquisition researcher and a professor of education at Harvard, presented opposing opinions on what the future of bilingual education in Massachusetts should be.

To support her contention that English immersion programs should replace the state’s failed bilingual ones, Porter summarized her experiences at the Armory Street School and in Newton. She framed her experience with statistical evidence that English-immersion teaching produces better results than bilingual programs, mentioning research done in El Paso, Texas, Nogales, Ariz., Dade County, Fl., Bethlehem, Pa., and other communities with English immersion programs in place.

Mastering English as early as possible, Porter said, will give students more time to master their school subjects and interact with their English- speaking peers. She quoted part of a passage from MIT professor Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, in which he concludes (from studying the experiences of deaf children and adults in learning sign language) that “their difficulties offer particularly good evidence that successful language acquisition must take place during a critical window of opportunity in childhood.”

Snow, in favor of saving bilingual programs, stressed that although many communities in the state haven’t done a good job implementing bilingual education, keeping it in place helps ensure that at-risk children who do not speak English don’t fall through the cracks. She downplayed “spurious test score increases,” crediting those increases to the same educational reforms that Porter readily acknowledges.

But Snow really caught my attention when she asserted that “anecdote is not evidence.” She seemed to dismiss the personal and professional experience that Porter drew on in her argument, and yet she failed to challenge Porter’s presentation of substantiated data in English immersion’s favor with data in favor of bilingual programs. Snow tossed off a few statements such as, “We know that bilingual education programs are more effective,” but she never once explained exactly how we know.

Snow also argued against the making of educational policy by ballot, in other words, of letting the electorate have a voice in a matter that impacts on their children — to my mind, a weak argument bureaucrats use when the democratic process threatens their position. And since efforts to change and improve bilingual laws in Massachusetts over the past 16 years have failed, should we voters trust that lawmakers will enact reforms any time soon?

During the question and answer period, I was offended by two of Snow’s snappy, ad hominem retorts and thoroughly dismayed by her faulty logic.

To Holyoke City Councilor Richard Welch, who commented that Spanish-speaking children in his city — 26 percent of the school population — are spending their entire school careers in bilingual classes without learning English at all, Snow replied that Holyoke must be one of those communities that is not implementing bilingual education very well. “They’re probably not doing a good job implementing math and science either,” she said, “but nobody suggests we shut math and science down.”

The comparison between bilingual education and math and science makes no sense to me. Bilingual education is a method of teaching; math and science are subjects that can be taught by that method. How effectively academic content can be taught in bilingual programs is the real issue here, and Snow evaded it.

In a later question, Lincoln Tamayo, the chairman of Massachusetts’ English for the Children Campaign, challenged Snow’s assertion that children will learn English better if they wait until they’ve mastered reading and writing in their native language. (Snow believes kids are not really capable of that kind of mastery until the end of fifth grade.) But Tamayo, who came from Cuba to Florida and entered an English-speaking kindergarten class in Tampa, said he learned to speak English in two months. And if he’d been placed in a bilingual class for three years, as Massachusetts law requires, he said, then three valuable years in which to acquire English would have been wasted.

Snow contended that if Tamayo had been in school in Cuba for those three years and then had come to America, he wouldn’t have considered those years wasted.

Here she entirely missed — or decided to ignore — Tamayo’s point, which was that immigrant children can learn and do learn English quickly when they’re immersed in it, both socially and academically.

I left Mount Holyoke convinced that anecdote is evidence — just limited evidence. And the more personal and professional experience like Porter’s is replicated and documented across the country, the more persuasive and pertinent such anecdote becomes.

Many bilingual education activists contend that native-language instruction is a public school student’s inalienable right. And by doing so they lose sight of the fact that linguistically isolating limited-English students — effectively segregating them from mainstream students for the better part of the day — reverses some of the progress the country has made toward racial and ethnic equality.

Should bilingual education be justified as a kind of publicly funded entitlement?

I asked Porter a more fundamental question: What is the responsibility of a public school?

She answers: “The responsibility of the public schools for these children, as it was written into the original federal law, is to remove the language barrier to an equal education. That is the first responsibility. … Beyond giving them the common language of the society, schools must also see that these kids learn [their academic] subjects. That’s the obligation, and it’s a strong obligation. How they do it can vary from place to place, but that’s the goal. Remove the language barrier, give them an education equal to that provided to English- speaking children. Get them up to speed so that they can be in the mainstream and become productive workers, good citizens. That is it. The schools have no obligation to maintain native language and culture.

“If different school districts want to encourage different things, provide enrichment in Spanish or other languages, that’s fine. But it is not a primary responsibility of the public schools.

“And in fact, the schools alone cannot maintain [anyone’s native] language; it cannot be done unless the family keeps using the language at home, and this [is documented in] sociological studies. If the family continues to speak the language at home, even if the children don’t learn to read and write it, they will still be communicating. They will not lose it. And they can come back to it 20 years later. They can revive their Spanish and it’s there.”

Porter here broaches what’s at the emotional heart of the bilingual advocates’ case: the fear that learning English too soon will purge our immigrants of their ethnic vitality. Her response stresses practicality.

“How can you teach 60 or 70 native languages when you can’t even teach Spanish, French and German right now? This is where you get to the politically correct part, I mean [advocating for] things that sound wonderful: ‘Oh let’s help all these kids develop their native language.’ Wait a minute. Nobody stops to think about the finite nature of the school day, or the fact that the U.S. has the shortest school year of any developed country. You want to add other things all the time but you don’t expand the hours or the number of days. What’s going to suffer? Science? Math? History? Art? Music? So there are a lot of ‘motherhood’ type things that we all think we should subscribe to, but when you look at them in a realistic way, what, in practical terms, can be done by a public school system?

“You have to have a priority and the first priority for these kids is mastery of English as quickly as possible.”

That’s Rosalie Porter’s advice. But will Massachusetts voters take it?

When framed as a question of civic priorities, it seems entirely right that voters should decide whether to persevere with bilingual education’s insistence on teaching children in their native tongues, thereby putting them at educational and economic risk — or to ask kids to leave those languages behind during school hours, downplaying their ethnic heritage, perhaps, but enhancing their prospects for success in America. *

For more information about the English for the Children Campaign, check out their website at

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