Rosalie Porter could not read, write or understand English when she entered first grade, newly arrived in this country at age 6 from her native Italy.
Today, at 64, she is a nationally recognized researcher, teacher, consultant, activist and author who warns that the bilingual education programs that cost $ 10 billion a year in the United States are less successful than her own sink-or-swim experience in a New Jersey elementary school.
Porter makes a compelling case for speeding up the transition of non-English-speaking youngsters into regular classrooms with intensive exposure to English, trained teachers and specialized materials. In staking out her opposition to the status quo in bilingual classrooms, Porter says she is aware that she is taking on a political hot potato and a bureaucracy that has become entrenched over the last 25 years.
At a meeting last week at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, Porter said classroom teachers and administrators have convinced her that the present system for teaching English to foreign speakers is a failure.
Porter, who is director of the Read Institute in Amherst that conducts research on programs for non-English-speaking children, answered critics who charge she opposes bilingual education.
“That is not true,” she said. Rather, her quarrel is with the way it is taught.
Porter was head of bilingual education in Newton for 10 years. Before that, she was a bilingual classroom teacher in Springfield. Her prescription for teaching non-English speakers is intensive English language from the first day of school.
“You have to make a commitment,” she said. “Teachers have to be trained and redesign the curriculum. Three hours a day of intensive English make an enormous difference at the end of six months.”
She said strict and inflexible laws, particularly in Massachusetts, have operated to maintain children in segregated classes rather than prepare them to handle courses in English.
In an update of her 1990 book, “Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education,” to be issued in March by Transaction Publishers at Rutgers University, Porter argues that “the efforts being made and the money being invested” in bilingual programs “are still largely misguided.”
In the years since she was in first grade, with no bilingual program, society’s attitudes have changed. According to Porter, the country replaced assimilation aspirations of earlier immigrants with “encouraging immigrant groups that schools should preserve their native language and culture.”
In 1968, Congress enacted a bilingual education law. In 1971, Massachusetts became the first state to adopt its own bilingual legislation. According to Porter, the Massachusetts law is the most restrictive and demanding of all bilingual education laws.
The initiative for teaching English to immigrant children was started by a Texas senator who wanted to remove the language barrier for newcomers in this country.
“It was never intended as a long-term program,” Porter said. She said most bilingual education students are taught all their subjects in their native language, with about 35 to 40 minutes in the day allotted for instruction in English.
“Kids were kept isolated in those classes,” she said, “and there are cases where seventh graders who had been retained in those bilingual programs could not function in English classes.”
While schools are enrolling increasing numbers of non-English-speaking students, Porter said, politics have blocked research and new instructional programs. She said many administrators have complained to her that they are providing bilingual education at great cost but little success.
Porter said she is encouraged by some signs that parents are rejecting the traditional programs. She said Latino parents in Brooklyn are suing the New York state commissioner of education, disputing the assignment of their children to bilingual classes. They claim the law is being violated because too many children are retained in bilingual programs for six and seven years.
She said in some districts, non-English-speaking students are shunted into special-education classes they do not need.
“Their only deficiency,” she said, “is their inability to speak English.”