Beyond Repair?

Principal Ready to Pull Plug on Bilingual Ed

Arizona is debating how to teach 112,000 students with limited English-speaking skills. English for the Children – Arizona has proposed an initiative for the 2000 election requiring that all students be placed in English classrooms, unless their parents request otherwise. The group needs 110,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

In the third installment of an ongoing Arts & Ideas dialogue on bilingual education, Republic columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., a former substitute teacher and doctoral student in education, and Margaret Garcia-Dugan, principal of Glendale High School and a state coordinator of English for the Children – Arizona, discuss the issue.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Margaret, we agree that bilingual education, as implemented in Arizona schools, is often a disaster. It’s discriminatory, arbitrary as to students’ placement in bilingual classes, mired in bureaucracy and in need of repair.

But the initiative you propose doesn’t fix bilingual education. It finishes it.

There are purists who don’t believe there should be any Spanish spoken in a U.S. classroom. But I don’t agree. I’ve found programs that appear to be working. They include dual-language programs, in which English-speaking students seem to be learning Spanish while Spanish-speaking students learn English.

I’ve seen programs that avoid the mistakes that others make. While bad programs ignore parents’ wishes, I’ve seen good ones whose directors say they yield to parents. While bad programs are marked by the neglect of lazy and irresponsible administrators, I’ve seen good ones where principals and superintendents – often Latino themselves – keep a hands-on approach. While bad programs rope students into bilingual tracks because of arbitrary factors like a Spanish surname or the recommendation of officials at lower grades, good ones test pupils before placing them.

Are you at all concerned that by eliminating bilingual education outright, you might be, as the cliche goes, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and punishing good programs right along with bad ones? Doesn’t that turn the clock back to the dark days where Latino students were left to “sink or swim” in English, and many of them did sink?

Also, there’s been a lot of angry criticism directed at your group, English for the Children – Arizona, by those who prosper and profit from the current system. You and other Latinos behind the effort are called “coconuts” (Brown on the outside but White on the inside) and sellouts. Anglos who agree with you are labeled “racists.”

There’s also been criticism about the movement’s roots and motivations. The director of bilingual programs for the Tucson Unified School District told the Los Angeles Times that your group isn’t “grass roots.” Others contend that your effort is really a California import, something foisted upon innocents by trouble-making outside agitators.

How “grass roots”is your cause and to what degree is it influenced by forces outside the state?

MARGARET GARCIA-DUGAN: First of all, comparing “dual language” programs to bilingual education programs is like comparing apples to oranges. Dual-language programs allow all students, regardless of ethnic origin, to enroll. The curriculum in these programs is taught to all students in both languages, either in the same classroom by one or two teachers, or in two different classrooms: one teacher teaches the curriculum in English, while the other teaches the curriculum in Spanish and again to all students.

Bilingual education programs are not aimed at all students, but only at non-native speakers of English, and those students are mainly Hispanic.

And as far as some bilingual programs being effective, I agree. There are always exceptions. But according to the data, only a few are successful.

As for those that are successful, who knows what type of bilingual program they practice? Teachers shape the programs, so if you talk to 10 different bilingual teachers from 10 different districts, you may find 10 different pedagogical practices.

I am not concerned that eliminating bilingual education will “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I am more concerned about the baby drowning in the water.

You can’t tell me the students in bilingual programs are given the same curriculum as students in mainstream English and other core classes. Segregating students in bilingual programs impedes their learning and denies them a quality education.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 sought to help non-native- language speakers of English learn to speak, read and write in English. Now, bilingual teachers believe that students need to be taught to speak, read and write in their own language before they are taught English.

Our children have been subjected to experimentation. That’s wrong. As educators, we have a moral obligation, as well as a constitutional duty, to provide all of Arizona’s children, regardless of their ethnicity, with the skills necessary to become productive members of our society. Of these skills, literacy in the English language is among the most important. If we don’t teach this skill, we are crippling our children for the future.

As for the claim that we want to turn the clock back to the “dark days” of English immersion, I’m not sure those days were so dark. I know of many Latinos who were immersed in English and who became productive citizens of this country – to name a few, my mother, father, brothers, sisters and friends who are now politicians, teachers, lawyers, etc.

But you’re right about criticism directed toward our group, English for the Children – Arizona. However, we have had much more positive support from people to continue our work toward getting an initiative on the ballot in 2000. We have had many educators – who are closest to the issue – come out to support us.

As for California, we can only hope our initiative is as successful as Proposition 227. It helps that we have a model, but we’ve been against what bilingual education is doing to our children for two decades now.

Let’s have faith in our non-native speakers of English. They can learn quickly if we, as educators, maintain high standards of curriculum and high expectations of them.

NAVARRETTE: Again, you and I agree as to the abuses and lack of standards. We also agree about the importance of English.

But what if schools are so eager to teach students English that they erase their Spanish in the process? How has that left the student better than they found him? After all, if the purpose of education is to contribute to, and improve upon, students’ abilities, then how is an immersion program that takes an asset – the student’s natural bilingualism – and erases it consistent with that goal?

Also, aren’t you even a bit concerned about the historical tendency of public schools to attempt to scrub away students’ cultural differences and force assimilation? Given that history, there must be some people within today’s public-school system who are just waiting for another chance to rein in students’ culture.

Won’t this initiative, regardless of its possible merit, offer aid and comfort to those assimilationists and leave us with students who all look – and sound – the same? How does that groom future leaders for the global economy of the 21st century?

Finally, what about those students who may suffer if the initiative is passed? Aren’t there some immigrant students who require bilingual education, at least for a few years after arriving in the country? Without bilingual education, they could fall behind and be forgotten. What are schools to do to make sure that displaced students keep up?

GARCIA-DUGAN: I don’t believe there’s any research to prove that teaching a new language to a student erases the student’s native language. Students spend half of their day with their parents, and if their parents wish for them to maintain their native language, they will converse with their children in their native language. Besides, students won’t lose their Spanish if they are constantly exposed to it in their neighborhoods through Spanish-speaking merchants, television and the like.

Also, I don’t know of any person – much less any teacher – who wishes to eradicate a student’s ability to speak two languages. The English immersion classes that the proposed initiative mandates could translate or teach the cognates of the two languages in order for students to gain English acquisition.

As a former ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I often showed my Latino students comparisons of the two languages.

So, a teacher in the English immersion class would capitalize on the similarities between the student’s native language and English whenever possible. This would facilitate the learning of English.

Bilingual education proponents say that the people who are backing the English for the Children initiative are against bilingualism. That’s a scare tactic and it’s not true.

I also don’t believe the tendency of schools is to scrub away students’ cultural differences to force assimilation. Schools and/or teachers cannot teach or take away students’ culture. And those teachers and administrators who think they can are just arrogant. The only people who can teach and maintain culture for children are the parents and grandparents of those children, not schools.

Besides, not all Latinos share the exact same culture or values.

For example, you and I are both Latino, but we don’t embrace the same culture or values to the same degree. Latinos are not cut from a cookie-cutter.

And what about the students – Latino students – who are now suffering from being in bilingual education? They have not been given the education they were mandated to receive from the Bilingual Education Act. They are not able to compete successfully in English classes and on state and national tests.

And why is it we only offer bilingual classes to Latino children? Vietnamese, Bosnian and other non-native speaker of English students are immersed into English classes and are able to learn English. Is the bilingual education that we know about maintaining Spanish at the expense of teaching English to our Latino students? Do we believe Latino students possess the same academic abilities as other students?

I believe they do. I also believe that they can be held to the same high academic standards that all other nationalities have been held to for the past 200 years.

I have a friend who teaches Head Start. She has told me the first thing that Latino parents request for their children is to learn English. Why is that? Because they want their children to be successful and productive.

Our preschools and K-3 programs should begin teaching English to non-native speakers of English as soon as they enroll in the system. David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, believes that children need to be taught a second language from the age of 0 to 10. This is when the brain demands certain types of input in order to create or stabilize long-lasting structures. And yet, bilingual proponents want to delay the teaching of English because they believe students can’t learn a new language until they are literate in their native language.

Lastly, we can groom all students, including Latino students, to be future leaders in the global economy of the next century by affording them the same opportunity we offer other students: mastery of the English language.

NAVARRETTE: You say a couple of things that could support the argument of bilingual proponents.

For instance, you say that in English immersion classes, a teacher uses a student’s ability in one language (Spanish) to help him learn another (English). Isn’t that what bilingual education is supposed to do?

Also, you say that children are most apt to pick up new languages early in life. Bilingual educators say the same thing in arguing that children don’t have to choose between languages.

It sounds like you might not be so far apart from your opponents. If so, is there any hope of avoiding war?

Also, the state Legislature could still pass something. The Knaperek bill (House Bill 2387, proposed by Rep. Laura Knaperek, R- Tempe) would impose a three-year limit on bilingual funding. Would that be enough reform? Would it be enough to squash the initiative, as some legislators hope? Or has the die been cast?

GARCIA-DUGAN: Let’s get something straight. In a sheltered immersion class, the instruction is conducted in English. The teacher incorporates a student’s native language only when she feels it would help a student learn the concept/word faster.

In a bilingual class, the instruction is done solely in the student’s native language. Concepts, information, activities, questions are also given in Spanish. And the rest of the courses – math, science, social studies – are conducted in Spanish. That is very different from using English as the primary mode of instruction.

Also, bilingual proponents believe that a student cannot learn a new language until he is literate in his own native language. That is another difference. We believe a student can juggle two languages simultaneously and that is why we are so emphatic about teaching students English as soon as they enroll in school. Why delay the teaching of English?

When you ask bilingual coordinators why their schools’ scores are so low, they say that if the test had been in Spanish, their students would have done fine. That means that they are not teaching English, and so students are not learning English.

I think the camps are still far apart about when we should teach English. We propose teaching English as soon as possible. They want to delay it.

Again, we value bilingualism. But that’s not the same as believing in bilingual education.

The scores of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students on national tests have been in the range of 15 to 30 percent for 10 years. Yet no legislative reforms were ever discussed. Why now?

As for the Knaperek bill, I don’t trust the monitoring mechanism for the three-year limit.

You ask whether there is any compromising. This is not about political compromises. This is about helping students to achieve academically.

I’m not a politician. I’m an educator who works to offer quality education to all students.

I have more faith in the “English for the Children” initiative than I do in legislators at this point.

Let’s let the people decide.

? ? Ruben Navarrette Jr. can be reached at (602) 444-4977 or at ruben.navarrette via e-mail.

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