Harvard panel heatedly debates bilingual education

Cambridge, Mass.—Ron Unz, who is spearheading California’s anti-bilingual education bill Proposition 227, faced off against Shattuck Professor of Education Catherine E. Snow in an explosive debate in front of an agitated crowd Monday night at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education (GSE).

Many people were turned away by Harvard University Police Department officers at the doors as over 350 people packed into an overflowing Askwith Lecture Hall to hear the debate about Unz’s proposals for a single year of English “immersion” for non-English speakers. The plan would end nearly all bilingual education. The debate became all the more relevant following a Boston Globe report Monday that Unz had accumulated enough signatures to put his proposal on the 2002 Massachusetts ballot. Boston-area high school teachers, administrators and members of the Massachusetts Board of Education were in the audience, as well as concerned parents and students.

Unz argued that only 5 to 6 percent of the 375,000 Californian high schoolers who were classified as not being proficient in English were reclassified as English speakers every year before Proposition 227, which ended most of the state’s bilingual programs, was passed in 1998.

In the three years since schools have begun using one-year English “immersion,” test scores of students in California who studied English as a second language have increased by more than 50 percent.

Snow, while criticizing the former California bilingual education system, praised the current one in Massachusetts for its 20 percent yearly reclassfication rate. She attacked Unz’sclaims, saying that “he represented this issue in a way that misrepresented the facts” and jibing that California’s “reclassification rate has soared to 7 percent” since 1998.

The minimal increase can be attributed to smaller class sizes and increased funding for middle schools, she said.

As Unz himself acknowledged, the vast majority of last night’s audience was vocally hostile, as he said is often the case when he makes public appearences in California.

Members of the Communida Latina and the GSE’s Student Government Association passed out over 50 yellow armbands with the words “NO UNZ” scrawled in black ink across them, and the corridors outside the hall were filled with handmade “language is a right” signs.

While Snow’s comments were met with rapturous applause, Unz’s were at first met with complete silence and then hissing, booing and numerous shouts of “that’s a lie” and “it’s not true.”

“We don’t need California’s initiatives to solve Massachusetts’ educational problems,” Snow said.

“I don’t have the time to talk about them, but I hope you have the time to read them,” she said, pointing to a stack of academic books and turning to Unz. “I really admire Mr. Unz in his commitment to education reform … but responsible advocacy is informed advocacy.”

Unz and Snow first each spoke for eight minutes and then spoke for an additional three minutes, rebutting their opponent’s arguments, before taking questions from the moderator and the audience.

Neither Snow nor Unz backed down as the debate came to a close.

“[Bilingual education] destroyed the lives of millions upon millions of students,” Unz said during the question-and-answer period. “That’s what the history books will write.”

But Snow, in her response to the audience’s final question, got the last word.

“Learning English faster does not equal learning English better,” she said.

Comments are closed.