Bilingual education: Parsing Prop. 227

The political issues are more complex than how best to teach English

A little-noted sign of a disconnect between leading politicians and desires and preferences of the citizens they serve is the controversy over Proposition 227, Ron Unz’s and Gloria Matta Tuchman’s “English for the Children” initiative.

All the politicians with a realistic chance to be the next governor _ Republican Dan Lungren and Democrats Al Checchi, Gray Davis and Jane Harman _ oppose the initiative. But the people of California support it by wide margins _ unless opinion polls take an unexpected nose dive, which is possible considering a lot of last-minute, anti-227 money is being pumped into the state’s airwaves.

The objections the candidates cite, in fact, are not unreasonable. Dan Lungren told us in a recent editorial board meeting that although he is sympathetic to the idea of making sure California students achieve mastery of English as quickly as possible, his commitment to local control of schools makes him resist what would be a state mandate. The Democrats cite local control and say that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to acquiring English under Prop. 227 is simply too inflexible.

Most notably, no one, including organized opposition we have talked to, tries to argue that the current approach isn’t broken.

Their contention is that 227 itself is flawed enough to be discarded and that other avenues to encourage early English learning should be pursued.

From our libertarian perspective, a competitive school system, where no one was forced into one program or another, would be the optimum way to handle what seems to be a continuous and perhaps irresolvable disagreement over how to better ensure that students whose first language is not English acquire enough English proficiency to prosper in this country.

Under a competitive scenario, let School A offer total immersion, School B offer “traditional” slow-transition bilingual education, and School C, D, E and so on offer variations and let parents decide which suits their child best.

The scramble for customers, reinforced by the possibility of customers seeking alternatives, would give every school strong incentives to adapt, to listen to what students and parents have to say and to try to meet their needs.

But that’s not likely to happen. For better or worse, we have a government system whereby students are required by law to patronize it or an approved alternative. It’s saddled with dozens of state and federal mandates, some sensible and some ridiculous, it costs more than it should, it’s subject to fads and fancies. It is seldom responsive to parental concerns, let alone to the notion that each child is a unique individual who should be treated as such and urged to fulfill him or herself as an individual rather than being pushed into a mold. There are constructive (and destructive) ways to tinker with it, but it’s unlikely to be replaced with a pure market system any time soon.

Given the reality of the situation, a decision about Prop. 227 comes down to a pragmatic rather than a principled decision for a libertarian.

Is it a good thing for students in California to acquire English proficiency quickly? Is the present system likely to implement programs with a good chance of achieving this goal?

If not, a case can be made that it’s a good idea to start dismantling the status quo by voting for 227, even though the proposition would become a state mandate and the initiative has drawbacks and unintended consequences yet to be seen.

The problem is that for many people in the education establishment, the current bilingual approach has not only become bureaucratically entrenched, providing extra jobs or extra pay for those who implement it. It has almost achieved the status of what my mother _ a school teacher and counselor most of her adult life who was perpetually amused by the vehemence with which the fad of the moment was promulgated _ used to call a “curricular religion. ” Thus we have entire school districts vowing to resist 227 if it is passed and believing they are on the side of truth and righteousness, fighting against error and darkness.

For instance, the reaction to a decision by the state Board of Education on March 12 to allow school districts almost complete flexibility in designing transition-to-English programs is instructive.

The San Francisco Chronicle noted that “for large districts committed to traditional bilingual education, the board’s decision means little because the state board has effectively shifted control to them. ” Victoria Castro, a trustee of L.A. Unified, said she was “very confident that here in Los Angeles we will maintain and continue to improve our education for primary-language students. ” Translation? Don’t expect any changes. The attitude was echoed up and down the state, from San Diego to San Jose to Santa Ana to Oakland to Porterville to St. Helena to Coachella Valley.

Many local school boards with bilingual programs believe they are just jim-dandy and can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Insofar as they try to explain the fuss, they prefer to think in darker terms, like hostility to immigrants or to the Spanish language.

Senate Bill 6, which would have essentially codified the state board’s decision into law but was vetoed by Gov. Wilson, would most likely have had a similar _ minimal _ impact in classrooms in large districts.

SB 6 was only the latest attempt by the legislature to begin to make serious reforms in the years since the state’s bilingual education law sunsetted in 1987. Nothing ever moved forward.

All these thoughts are at the heart of the argument from Ron Unz, who also met with us. He claims that if this initiative doesn’t pass, nothing will change. The bilingual approaches currently in place will continue to dominate especially in the larger districts, with variations in response to various educational fads and fashions, because the bilingual establishment is simply too deeply entrenched to allow significant change, says Unz.

On balance, I think he’s right. And I believe the citizens sense that he is right, which is why the initiative has had such consistent support as shown by polling data.

I give this argument the edge, even given that objections to broad state mandates and inflexible curricula are well worth considering and in most cases would be decisive.

And given that local control of education has been a persistent mantra among conservatives and some liberals and it’s an important value. But consider this: Local control is not the same as individual control or parental control. Local control often means control by people who ran for office with an extra-educational political agenda. Some school boards simply acquiesce to the preferences of non-elected administrators and bureaucrats, some tussle with them. All have an interest in maintaining their monopoly.

To be sure, there’s a kind of hazy, almost romantic notion about English-immersion programs and their role in assimilating new immigrants. America’s collective recollection goes something like this: Around the turn of the century, the United States had immigrants whose parents spoke languages ranging from Italian to Polish to Russian to Yiddish to Ukrainian to Serbo-Croatian and they were pushed into English-only classrooms and they did just fine. Indeed, there’s evidence that within a couple of generations the descendants of many recent-immigrant groups were doing better than natives across a range of socio-economic categories.

Well, the truth is something a bit different. For one, the culture was different then _ perhaps more individualistic and at the same time more nationalistic. And not all of the classrooms were solely English-immersion; there were some bilingual programs even in the late 1800s (mostly German). Previous immigrants might have had stronger incentives to acquire English and achieve success in an economy that was only beginning to move from agrarian to industrial. You can’t draw the simple conclusion many want to draw from such diverse and sometimes shaky data.

In any case, Prop. 227 seems to have wiggle room when it comes to full immersion. It speaks of “sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year,” and defines that as “an English language acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language,” a useful but loose definition. Some studies seem to demonstrate that this is the most effective method.

Hard data about what works, in fact, is hard to come by. There are a lot of studies out there that I’ve reviewed, but often they are either incomplete or aimed at supporting a point of view.

The best overview I’ve seen on the research into various methods of bringing about English proficiency, by Richard Seder of the Reason Public Policy Institute, concludes that the research is inconclusive. Some programs that emphasize long periods of native-language instruction seem to work, some sheltered-immersion programs seem to work, some studies seem to show that doing nothing special gets results as good as elaborate programs. It’s quite likely that external factors _ quality of instruction, administrative support, parental involvement, and, most of all, ongoing evaluation and fine-tuning, which almost no programs feature _ play a bigger role than the style of the English-acquisition curriculum.

So why vote for 227? Because it will jolt an educational establishment that has become somewhat wedded to a particularly expensive and rigid form of bilingualism, it appears to be flexible enough to allow for some innovation and is unlikely to be implemented as rigidly as many fear.

And because it is motivated by a desire to help immigrants acquire English as quickly as possible so they will have a better chance to succeed in life in the United States.

I’m afraid the current system _ with honorable exceptions, of course _ has become more entranced with structures and theories than with intelligent response to the individual needs of immigrant children. If Prop. 227 passes, even if it is never fully implemented, it will send a message that California voters want attention paid to helping children speak English well rather than to experimenting with children and building and maintaining empires.

Mr. Bock is the Register’s senior editorial writer.

Comments are closed.