Bilingual education should remain an option in Arizona

I am writing at this late date regarding Hector Ayala’s Oct. 29 opinion piece. I’ve been involved in Navajo bilingual education for almost 30 years. The thing that is so striking about Ayala’s piece is the tacit acceptance of a double standard in judging bilingual education.

Ayala faults Cathy Amanti for not providing “proof” that bilingual education – an optional method in Arizona – works. But he himself failed to provide any “proof” that “sheltered/structured English immersion” actually works. And yet the AZ Unz initiative that he is pushing would require that all “English learners” in Arizona go into such programs. We should expect a much higher level of proof. There seems to be a double standard at work here.

He has been given the citations of any number of works that show that bilingual education does and can work. But like a tobacco company lawyer, he chooses not to read research with which he disagrees, and dismisses that which he has to read. Note, however, that with the AZ Unz initiative he is asking the citizens of Arizona to take on faith that a one-year (only) “sheltered/ structured English immersion” program will work. This despite the relatively poor showing of this method over several years in the one major federally funded study (Ramirez) intended to show the superiority of that method.

The claim in California was that English learners would learn English in a single year. The California Unz initiative left state- required testing in place. Early results suggest that as many as 95 percent of the “English learners” were not “reclassified” as being “fluent English speakers” at the end of the first year. The same claim is now being made in Arizona. But in Arizona, we are also being asked to remove the state-required testing that might point out such embarrassing data.

Ayala says that Steve Krashen is “a professional researcher who has made his fortune on the backs of Hispanic students.” He insinuates that the only people who back bilingual education must be those who get paid for doing so.

If this is the way the world is, what about good English Onlies such as Linda Chavez and Jorge Amselle? They were in Phoenix several months ago to support Ayala’s espousal of the AZ Unz initiative. They make a reasonably good living pushing English Only. Shouldn’t they be suspect, too? Here, too, there seems to be a double standard.

If bilingual educators are suspect because they make a living teaching bilingually, why aren’t educators such as Ayala who make a living by teaching monolingually equally suspect?

Ayala is concerned about the relatively poor performance of Hispanic students in his high school. He is right to be concerned. No one should be satisfied with current results. He thinks that most of these students went to bilingual programs in elementary school and that this is the sole or most important cause of their poor performance in secondary school. These are Ayala’s impressions. We don’t know if things are indeed this simple.

It’s unfortunate that a man of Ayala’s concerns and abilities seems to believe that abolishing bilingual education is the single best thing he can do for these children. Single-minded destruction seldom solves any educational problem. While extremely skeptical that any bilingual program has ever worked, Ayala seems to accept on blind faith that nearly all one-year-only “structured/sheltered English immersion” programs will succeed. There’s no proof that they are likely to do so. What if he’s wrong – terribly wrong?

Bilingual education is an option in Arizona public schools. It’s not an easy option. It’s much easier to conduct English-only programs. Yet any number of Arizona schools and teachers and parents and students actually believe that bilingual education is working and can work in their schools.

The state’s admittedly incomplete data suggests that they may be right. Parents should be the ones to decide whether to place their children in bilingual education programs. They now do. But Ayala seems convinced that bilingual education is so bad that the state should make it impossible for Arizona parents to place their children in such programs – even if they want to. With the best of intentions, Ayala wants to decide for these parents.

There is little doubt that Ayala believes what he says. But, even with the best of intentions, trying to have the state make it impossible for the parents of “English learners” to place them in bilingual education programs smacks of educational fascism. It is to be hoped that the voters in Arizona are independent-minded enough to reject these efforts to use the state to enforce such a narrow and punitive language-education ideology.

Wayne Holm of Window Rock is a Navajo bilingual educator.

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