She calls herself a liberal, a “yellow dog” Democrat, a pragmatic social scientist.
Some of her critics call her a conservative. Whatever the label, her research and testimony in legal cases have put Christine Rossell at the intersection of some of the most challenging educational issues of the day: school desegregation and bilingual education.
Now a political science professor at Boston University, she has testified in a number of school desegregation cases and is currently advising school districts in Baton Rouge, La., and Kansas City, Mo., on revising their desegregation procedures.
Once a defender of court-ordered school desegregation plans, she now opposes them, feeling they contribute to the exodus of whites from the nation’s cities and take away the role of parents in directing their child’s education. She now favors voluntary desegregation.
As the author of a new book on bilingual education, Rossell is potentially a powerful ally for the state in a renewed battle in Massachusetts to overhaul requirements for teaching children in their native language.
Her book, “Bilingual Education in Massachusetts: The Emperor Has No Clothes” (Pioneer Institute), proposes legislative and regulatory changes that would revamp bilingual education in the state. Key differences would be replacing present programs with classes that mix all non-native English speakers and group them by age and level of ability in English.
Currently, bilingual programs in Massachusetts group students according to their first language. State law requires that if a school has at least 20 non-English-speaking students who speak the same first language, the district must hire a certified bilingual teacher who speaks that language.
Programs vary greatly among districts, from those that give all instruction in the children’s native language to those that use part or all English-language instruction.
The theory – but not always the fact – is that students will be mainstreamed into English-only classrooms by the end of three years.
Rossell and Keith Baker, a consultant on her book, call for replacing current bilingual programs with “structured immersion.”
Says Rossell in a telephone interview from her Brookline home, “The language of instruction in a structured immersion program is English, at a level the child can understand in a self-contained classroom of . . . students who are at approximately the same level of English language knowledge and the same age.”
She argues that children from a variety of language groups can be taught in the same classroom as long as the teacher has been trained properly.
“These programs should be fully integrated into regular schools,” Rossell says, “so that students are exposed to English speakers on the playground, in the cafeterias, the halls, assemblies and other areas before, during and after school.” She insists children should not be in these classes for more than a year.
Rossell’s work on bilingual education as well as desegregation issues has drawn a mixed reaction. Some colleagues regard her research as meticulous and reliable. Others claim she has drawn questionable conclusions from her data, sometimes manipulating them to support her findings.
BU professor James Schmidt, who succeeded Rossell recently as chairman of the political science department, calls her work “really precise, careful and rigorous. She is absolutely undogmatic and unideological. She is willing to change her own views based on what she has found in her own work. I met her for the first time in 1981 when she was utterly convinced that white flight was not caused by desegregation of schools. But as new data came in, she was convinced otherwise.
“So many people talk about public policy and pontificate about it and seem to take a position untouched by facts,” says Schmidt. “With Chris, there is always a sense she has thought very carefully about these issues and relies on the data.”
William Taylor, a lawyer in Washington and a veteran of court battles in which he has advocated mandatory desegregation, disagrees. He says he has known Rossell since the early 1970s.
“I have not had a lot to do with her in recent years,” Taylor says, “but on the St. Louis case, where she was retained by the state to be an expert witness, she was called on to do mathematical computations in the case, the largest voluntary metropolitan desegregation plan in the country.
“In the course of it, she twisted and distorted facts,” Taylor maintains. “She tried to make St. Louis look good by comparing only their desegregated schools with entire school districts in Denver and Dallas and Savannah.”
In her defense, Roselle says school districts and states continue to retain her on the basis of her work. And in defense of her shift from a defender of court-ordered desegregation to that of critic, Rossell says, “I am a crass empiricist. I follow the research findings.”
She argues that such orders have exacerbated the exodus of white families from the cities, a conclusion she has drawn from her own studies.
In discussing bilingual education, she prefers the term “native language instruction.” She says teaching children in their native language is not the best way to educate them.
“What is more shocking,” she says, “is that it was being implemented everywhere without real evidence that it works.”
Rossell says she wrote an article in 1979 reviewing all research on bilingual education, which she says was “bad.” Those findings, she says, are the basis for her newly published book.
The book was commissioned by the Pioneer Institute, a conservative, Boston-based think tank, which expects that her recommendations will become part of a public and legislative debate on the effectiveness and value of continuing bilingual education as it is now prescribed.
Robert Antonucci, state education commissioner, agrees with the book’s thesis that present legislation is too restrictive.
“A growing number of our students need to learn English, which is not their first language, in order to succeed in school, in college and in the work place,” Antonucci says. “Too many students are stuck in bilingual programs for too many years, and they need to learn English quickly.”
However, there is no timetable at this time for revamping the legislation, according to Antonucci’s spokesman, Alan Safran.
Rossell’s book urges that school districts be freed from the legal obligation “to provide programs in native-language instruction.”
“Massachusetts is one of only nine states in the country to require bilingual education in all school districts where there is a sufficient number of LEP students,” she says, referring to students with limited English proficiency. She finds unnecessary the state requirement that a district with as few as 20 non-English speaking students must have “native-tongue instruction in a separate classroom taught by a bilingual certified teacher.”
She says 40,000 students in 51 Massachusetts districts were enrolled in bilingual education programs in 1993-’94, but there was a wide variation in what and how they were taught.
“Bilingual education is political,” she says. “Its origin goes back to the ’60s when there was no theoretical foundation or research for it. Hispanic advocates claimed that their kids scored lower than English-speaking students and said that the Hispanic children were in an alien culture, taught in an alien language.
“The politically correct position,” she says, “was that Hispanic children should be taught in their native tongue or else you insult their proud culture and language. Academics then jump on the bandwagon and they find a way to justify it.”
“I define myself as a liberal,” she says. “I find it quite funny when I have been called a conservative and a racist. I am as liberal as you can get.”
Rossell calls herself a woman with “no roots, no ethnicity, no home base, no nothing.” The daughter of a naval officer, she reels off a number of schools she attended before finally enrolling at the University of California at Los Angeles, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in international studies in 1967. She earned her doctorate in political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
In 1975, she had a role in Boston’s court-ordered desegregation plan, serving on the Citywide Coordinating Council established by Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. to help the city comply with the traumatic and dramatic educational plan.
Rossell could be swept up in yet another political, legal and educational controversy as pressure grows in Massachusetts for major changes in how non-English-speaking children are taught.