War of Words

Bilingual classes next flash point in English-only duel

Welcome back to the language wars.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court put a final nail in the coffin of Arizona’s “official English” law – passed by voters in 1988.

But as one language battle was snuffed out, another was erupting. English for the Children of Arizona, a group of Latino parents and educators from Tucson and Glendale, has proposed an initiative for the 2000 election that virtually would end bilingual education, requiring that all students be placed in English-language classrooms. The initiative, modeled upon one passed by California voters last year, would allow children to remain in bilingual classes only if parents requested a waiver.

Recently, Republic columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., a former doctoral student in education and substitute teacher, and Miguel Montiel, an Arizona State University professor of public fffairs and co-author of the book Debatable Diversity, discussed the issue.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Miguel, as you know, Arizona is kicking off what will likely be a spirited debate over whether to eliminate bilingual education or, at least, whether to give parents the option of enrolling their children in it.

There is, in many quarters of an entrenched bilingual education establishment, in schools of education like the one at ASU and among veterans of the Chicano movement, some concern that replacing bilingual education with a sheltered immersion program would hurt limited English-speaking students, many of whom are Hispanic.

But shouldn’t these special interests be at least as concerned about the frustration felt by many Hispanic parents who have been unable to remove their children from bilingual programs – a frustration that has, in California and Arizona, erupted into support for these sorts of initiatives? Shouldn’t they be just as concerned with the welfare of children languishing in bilingual programs for up to eight or nine years in some cases and not learning English fast enough? What consolation is it to the parents of a student enrolled in bilingual education that the student can speak to Grandma in Spanish if he doesn’t know English well enough to excel in high school, score well on standardized tests and successfully apply to college?

MIGUEL MONTIEL: This anti-bilingual education initiative will certainly be controversial. The initiative supporters’ claim that children do not learn English because of bilingual education is illogical. Arizona’s performance in funding inner-city schools and its low ranking in almost every measure of children’s services are more plausible explanations for the poor performance of our pupils. We cannot attribute the poor performance of non-Hispanic children to bilingual education.

There are more profound motives behind this initiative that I will raise later, but for now, it is sufficient to point out that it is inspired and funded by a Californian and, if successful, will prove divisive and detrimental. Arizona already went through a “spirited” public debate with the Martin Luther King holiday.

If I may, however, I would like to respond to a few of your assertions. First, attacking bilingual educators as a self-serving “entrenched establishment” is a bit far-fetched. I have known them to be dedicated, responsible professors (including non-Hispanics) whose aspirations are toward improving the schools. This is not a “Chicano” interest issue, but a pedagogical issue.

There is no dispute that Hispanic (and other immigrant) parents want their children to learn English. It is not difficult to understand, however, why some parents are frightened by bilingual education when led to believe that it will hinder their children’s success. Learning two languages is an advantage and a valued goal among educated people.

Bilingual education is a complicated issue. There are various approaches, good and bad programs, good and bad teachers, well and poorly funded programs. Certainly we can make a case to improve bilingual education, as we can for the educational system in general.

NAVARRETTE: I’d agree with you that knowing multiple languages is a marketable asset. The real question is whether the public school system is the proper mechanism to produce a bilingual or multilingual populace. I’m not so sure it is.

I would also agree with you that it’s a stretch for opponents of bilingual education to blame the program for everything that has gone wrong, and continues to go wrong, for Latino students in public schools. And I’ll agree that why some students learn and others don’t is much too complicated a question to be dropped on the doorstep of bilingual education.

My two main concerns are: delayed English acquisition and bureaucratic/academic arrogance that results in a neglect of parental wishes.

First, it is, to use your word, completely “logical” to assume that a student’s prolonged exposure to whatever bureaucratic slop passes for “bilingual education” these days would hinder the acquisition of English. This is even more likely without state regulation, high standards or increased accountability, with pupils kept in bilingual programs for a virtually unlimited length of time. That’s too high a price to pay to keep students connected to their language and culture so as to avoid the trauma that past generations reportedly endured in Arizona public schools.

I’ve done countless interviews with Spanish-speaking parents who are concerned that mijo or mija doesn’t know English well enough despite the fact that they’ve been sending the kid to public school for several years. The evidence also shows up in low verbal scores on the Stanford 9 or later on the SAT. It shows up in the number of Latino students who enter ASU and other colleges in need of remedial help in English. Those are the real-life casualties of your little experiment.

My second concern deals with the arrogance with which academics and educational bureaucrats deal with Latino parents who question their methods. The proposed Arizona initiative would reverse the power dynamic now in effect, whereby schools decide which kids are conscripted into bilingual education and parents are powerless to get them out (despite the existence of laws requiring that schools yield to parental wishes).

You call it an “anti-bilingual education” initiative. But you could just as easily label the status quo as “anti-parental choice.”

Also, if all the bilingual proponents you know are “dedicated” and “responsible,” let me suggest you widen your circle of acquaintances. You’ll find plenty of opportunists who support bilingual education in part because it’s good for business in the form of lucrative consulting contracts. And school districts are cashing in on federal and state funds that they want to hold onto.

Finally, we agree again that there are various approaches and examples of both good and bad programs, teachers, etc. I’m happy to hear that you’re ready to lend your voice to those calling for reform of bilingual education.

But who’s kidding whom? The only, and I mean only, reason that you and others are suddenly willing to “mend it rather than end it” is because the bilingual education establishment has a gun to its head in the form of the proposed initiative.

MONTIEL: Let me make clear, lest there be a misunderstanding, I am not a bilingual educator. I teach at the School of Public Affairs at ASU.

We learn best when we build from our experience. The minority struggle is about validating the culture, history and language of these children, thus building on their strengths. All of us learn more effectively if we begin with what we know. Bilingual education is one educational strategy among many. It does not follow that educators don’t want children to learn English as quickly as possible. They are following a set of learning principles that seem to work if implemented properly.

There is no bilingual conspiracy. It is on this basis that we should approach a dialogue with parents about how children learn.

Choice is important, but only if we know what we are choosing. And just because we believe something does not make it true.

I wonder what type of responses you would have gotten if you had taken a more open approach toward bilingual education with the parents who were concerned that their children were not learning as they thought they should. Do parents not want their children to learn academic Spanish? I have done my share of interviews, and know that parents have high aspirations for their children that include their being literate and marketable in two languages.

There is no dispute that on many measures, many Latino kids do poorly in school. What we need to understand is that the problems of these kids are interrelated. If they have problems in school, they also are likely to have problems in other areas of their lives – drugs, teen pregnancy, delinquency.

We know that education works quite well in a setting where parents are literate and affluent, where they read to their children, where there are books, and where teachers hold high expectations. The same applies for bilingual education.

Arguments that attack people’s character or that blame bureaucracies play to the lowest passions and fears of citizens and may be effective for getting people to vote for the initiative, but they certainly will not lead to a better educated population.

Already the Supreme Court turned down the English-only initiative that passed here in Arizona a few years back. The rhetoric was effective, but it certainly did not do much to improve services or race relations in Arizona.

NAVARRETTE: Your comment about “validating the culture, history and language of these children” tells us a great deal about how we got into this mess.

Public schools are supposed to teach. Period. They’re not supposed to heal old wounds, preserve native tongues, alleviate historical suffering or in any other way bend over backward to validate any portion of poor Juanito’s existence, make him feel more at home or improve his self-esteem. That was true for the Italians, the Irish, the Germans and the Chinese. And it’s true for the Mexicans.

Teachers continually complain about not having enough hours in the day or days in the year to do all that is expected of them. But now a group of them – bilingual teachers – are more than willing to spend even more of their valuable time making sure that Juanito knows about Zapata and can also say “zapatos.” Even if they could do it, it would seem something would have to give, something would have to suffer. And it is.

Traditional learning, the three R’s and the acquisition of English are taking a back seat to Culture Preservation 1A. So the kids learn to make Mexican flags out of crepe paper, so what? That’s not exactly a marketable skill.

No, there’s no “conspiracy” – just a three-pronged devil’s bargain where schools get to profit, academics get to prosper and Chicano activists get to pretend that they can succeed in an English-speaking world without experiencing even the slightest bit of alienation from their cultura. Everybody wins, except for those flag-making students and their parents.

And as for those parents, I’d agree with you that many of them, if given the choice, would prefer that their kids learn both languages. But just as many of them might say that maintaining a student’s Spanish should be done at home, not at school. I’d also suggest that many would choose an emphasis on English above all else. As it stands now, bilingual educators promise them a luxury, then deny them the essentials.

But I’m glad that you’re OK with the idea of letting parents choose. Fine. Let them choose. That’s what the proposed initiative does. If you’re confident that they’ll choose bilingual education, then you and the alarmists have nothing to worry about.

Finally, if you really want to “improve race relations” in Arizona, you can start by treating minority parents with respect, welcoming different points of views and demanding more from students of all colors. Arizonans are tougher than you give them credit for being. This debate won’t break them.

MONTIEL: The 21st century is upon us, and the ’60s are long gone. I have been around many teachers and have yet to see what you describe.

The other day, I visited a dual language classroom – youngsters study part of the day in English and the other in Spanish. I admired the ease with which they wrote their stories in English and Spanish on the computer, the manner in which they discussed issues of social justice and collectively challenged each other.

In this school, parents are encouraged to discuss the education of their children with teachers; they participate in fund-raisers and field trips. These are poor kids, but their spirit is rich.

What is occurring in this second-grade classroom is founded on principles of learning from loving, intelligent teachers, not on self-serving motives.

One of the challenges this generation faces is an influx of poor people into this country. The initiative is one of a series of negative strategies to deal with this issue. It is linked to the assault on affirmative action, “English Only,” and other anti- immigration and anti-minority policies. It is important to view this initiative in its proper context.

Yes, indeed, I fear public policy founded on fear and race- baiting. There is little that we can do to reason with people of bad faith. However, we must be accountable to citizens who are concerned with how their tax dollars are spent. They want all children to grow up to be productive citizens, and have legitimate concerns about the educational system, including bilingual education.

Let me agree with you about the need for standards and accountability. Bilingual programs have been around for 30 years, and their record of performance is mixed. There needs to be oversight, monitoring and technical assistance to transform them from remedial to enrichment programs. They also need to be more inclusive.

It seems that the political sentiment is to limit bilingual education for a shorter period, and perhaps this will be inevitable, even though some experts agree that it takes eight years to develop full bilingual skills. The central issue, however, is to ensure the development of highly skilled teachers. I agree with you that parents should be provided choice.

Bilingual education is not just for Latino children; all children could profit from it. We all gain by properly educating all children.

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