Once again, bilingual education is under attack. Now it’s Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz who wants to bury bilingual education. If the California ballot measure he is sponsoring, Proposition 227, is approved on June 2 it would effectively destroy bilingual education in the state.
Currently, California districts are free to decide how they will respond to the needs of limited English-proficient (LEP) children in their classrooms. Bilingual education is one of those options for which federal and state assistance is made available. Under the Unz initiative, “English for the Children,” districts would have no other choice but to place LEP students in segregated classrooms for one year of intensive English instruction.
The proposal would lump students together in classrooms without regard to differences in age, ability or grade level. Teachers expected to perform this one-year miracle would not be required to have any special ESL or bilingual training, preparation or credentials. Teachers would only need to “possess a good knowledge of the English language,” as if knowing English were the same as being able to teach it well.
During that first year, students would not be given academic instruction commensurate with their grade level. Then the next year, regardless of their English proficiency, students would be mainstreamed into English-only classrooms to either sink or swim in every subject area. The Unz initiative imposes this untested and unrealistic mandate on districts, forcing them to surrender their freedom to choose, according to the specific needs of their population, the best option for their students.
Decades of research has demonstrated that the Unz approach, namely the “sheltered English immersion” classroom, is the least effective method for meeting the academic and linguistic needs of LEP students. Contrary to mass media lies and misinformation, the most comprehensive, longitudinal research has confirmed that the highest performance on standardized tests in English are achieved by LEP students taught in both English and their native language.
Fueling wide support for this measure are not only ethnic intolerance, xenophobia and linguistic chauvinism, but also public ignorance about how children learn languages. Unz doesn’t realize that simply speaking English is not the same as mastering English literacy and fluency. Research shows that it takes more than just one year – experts say it usually takes four years – of English language development instruction for students to meaningfully participate in an English-only classroom.
Unz claims that bilingual education has failed California’s LEP students. However, since only 30 percent of LEP students even receive bilingual instruction, whatever failure they experience is due more to the fact that 70 percent of them receive instruction only in English. Unz also makes that tired, old fallacious charge that bilingual education contributes to the high Hispanic dropout rate. Yet, after almost a century of mandated English-only instruction in California up until the 1960s, the Hispanic dropout rate was nearly 75 percent. However, since the authorization of bilingual education in 1967, the Hispanic dropout rate has diminished to just more than 20 percent, not an acceptable rate, but one that would be higher without bilingual education.
Among the many tragic consequences of Proposition 227 is the destruction of exemplary bilingual programs throughout California whose proven effectiveness has won them national recognition and awards. It would submit teachers who in good conscience refuse to abide by Prop. 227 to personal liability suits.
It would also deny children under 10 years old the opportunity of learning a “foreign” language in school, even if that happens to be the language spoken in their own homes. Thus, the Unz mandate would prohibit Hispanic children from becoming bilingual at an early age, just when it is best developed, denying them all the social, economic, academic and occupational advantages that bilingualism could bring.
After months of internal debate, the Clinton administration finally decided to formally oppose Prop 227. Meanwhile, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Sugar Land has introduced legislation that would end federal funding for bilingual education altogether.
I hope in Texas, as educators and citizens, we are vigilant and informed enough not permit the destruction of bilingual education in our state or nation. Nor should we allow any such restrictive mandate to replace our rights as parents and district patrons to decide for ourselves in a democratic way what is best for our students.
– Julio Noboa is an educational anthropologist and free-lance writer.