BILINGUAL education – education of a student primarily in his native language – is coming under attack in California. A rogue Orange County school district sought and received an exemption from the bilingual program with impressive results, and a movement to dismantle the costly program is under way through a proposed ballot initiative. The current debate raises the fundamental question about education: How do children learn? Answers provided by bilingual education’s defenders reveal its bankruptcy.
Bilingual education is a failure in practice because it is defective in theory. Nearly one of every four of California’s 1.3 million public school students do not know English, a statistic that has more than doubled in the past decade. Latino students rank the lowest of any ethnic group in test-measured English proficiency, although California’s Department of Education estimates that Latinos’ eligibility for bilingual programs more than doubled from 1981 to 1993. They have the highest dropout rate at 40 percent, and test scores show that, whether or not they complete high school, Latinos are barely literate in either English or Spanish after bilingual education.
Latinos are not alone. The number of the state’s public school students who are not previously proficient in English and become literate in English is a pathetic 5 percent each year. Is it any wonder that millionaire software developer Ron K. Unz, who ran against Pete Wilson for governor in 1994, called bilingual education the ”single most bizarre and unsuccessful government program in California today”?
Unz has started the campaign for a ballot initiative to dismantle bilingual education. The program’s failure is not surprising. Bilingual education has achieved precisely what its educational philosophy is designed to achieve: a monolingual education, not in English. Bilingual education achieves this through an approach that presumes the child must continue to acquire knowledge in his native tongue.
As Carmen Schroeder, assistant superintendent of language acquisition for the Los Angeles Unified School District, recently told the Daily News: ”You build on what you already know. . . . When you know a primary language, you’re able to transfer those skills to another language.” In other words, until the student learns in his native language, the student can’t learn English as a primary language. This notion ignores the process by which he learns.
As he learns skills in his native language, the student may lose the opportunity to learn the new language fluently. If he is to live and thrive in the United States, he must become proficient in English while gaining knowledge. Advocates of bilingual education say both are impossible to achieve, and they’re wrong. It is possible.
Teacher Anne Sullivan, whose brilliant technique was dramatized in ”The Miracle Worker,” wrote: ”Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences. At first my little pupil’s mind was all but vacant. She (Helen Keller, who could not see or hear) had been living in a world she could not realize. Language and knowledge are indissolubly connected. They are interdependent. . . . I never taught language for the purpose of teaching it, but invariably used language as a medium for the communication of thought. Thus the learning of language was coincident with the acquisition of knowledge.”
Why don’t advocates of bilingual education recognize that bilingual education has failed? They have an incentive for perpetuating the program: more tax dollars. Budgets designated for bilingual education are based on student enrollment.
What kind of teacher or educator continues to teach in a program that fails to teach 95 percent of its students each year? The kind of teacher to whom the student is merely a meal ticket to bigger, bloated bureaucratic budgets? Those in doubt should consider the meaning of the words of a representative of the California Federation of Teachers, who recently told a Daily News reporter: ”A child cannot learn the content of any curriculum when it is taught in a language he cannot understand.”
If the curriculum and English are taught simultaneously, the child can understand both. Instead, she prefers to teach the student in his native language, robbing him of the opportunity to learn English.
More than 30 years ago, before bilingual education had taken root in America’s public school system, pioneering educator Maria Montessori wrote, ”The didactic material, in fact, does not offer to the child the content of the mind, but the order for that content. . . . Language now comes to fix, by means of exact words, the ideas which the mind has acquired.” Those words can be English. As Montessori put it: ”(Children) have an inner guide which leads them to become active and intelligent explorers instead of wandering wayfarers in an unknown land.”
Advocates of bilingual education, claiming a child’s mind is limited to his native language, are choking the intellectual development of today’s students, making them tomorrow’s wandering wayfarers in a truly unknown land. Abolishing bilingual education – whether gradually or immediately – is progress toward a future of intelligent explorers.
EDITOR-NOTE: Scott Holleran writes frequently for Viewpoint. His e-mail address is sholleranearthlink.net