Bilingual Education was Neither

THE one dark spot in California voters’ emphatic rejection of bilingual education last week was the sudden drop-off of support from Hispanics.

Just a month before the election, 58 percent of Latino voters favored Proposition 227. But at the polling booth, just four out of 10 Latinos voted to end bilingual education as we know it.

Even that represents a remarkably high level of support for a bill that opponents portrayed as anti-immigrant. Proposition 227’s proponents reached out to Hispanic Californians. In one radio ad, for example, ex-Garfield High School principal Henry Gradillas argued that bilingual education programs in his own school had been “failing to properly educate Latino children.”

Clearly many Latinos did not need much convincing: “I honestly believe the only way to learn English is to be immersed in it,” Steve Feria told The New York Times. “I wouldn’t have a job as a flight instructor if I didn’t have the proper English skills.”

Despite the alleged goal of bilingual education (mainstreaming), too many Hispanics around the country have had experiences like New York City’s Ada Jimenez, who joined a lawsuit after her grandson was forced to undergo seven years of bilingual education despite the fact that, as she testified, he “did not speak any Spanish” when he entered kindergarten.

In the 1995 lawsuit filed by the Bushwick Parents Organization of New York, Edwin Selzer, a former assistant principal in Williamsburg, said, “In my experience, once a child was in a bilingual education program, he remained in such programs and was never mainstreamed into regular English-speaking classes.”

Boston University Professor Christine Rossell reviewed 72 mostly small but methodologically sound studies that randomly assigned students to either bilingual education or some alternative and compared the results to a control group of similar students. In an essay in the Center for Equal Opportunity’s “The Failure of Bilingual Education,” she concludes that “substantially more studies show a harm” from bilingual education “than show a benefit.”

When it comes to math achievement, just 9 percent of studies showed bilingual ed helped; 91 percent showed kids in bilingual ed did no better, but actually worse than kids thrown into regular English classes with no help at all.

A majority of African-Americans supported Proposition 227, no doubt including many like Oakland parent George Louie who filed suit after discovering his son – a native-born American – was placed in a bilingual classroom. “No one notified me,” Louie told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I happened to get to school early one day to pick up Travell and saw him and three other kids who weren’t Chinese sitting off by themselves in the back of the classroom. They were ignored while the teacher talked to the rest of the class in Cantonese for 45 minutes.”

George Louie, a single father with a prosthetic leg, was told he would have to transfer out of the district (which does not provide busing) to get all-English education for his son.

Then there’s the problem of incompetent teachers. Finding a good biology teacher is hard enough, especially in inner-city schools. Finding one who is good in both biology and Spanish can be nearly impossible. One reason bilingual education may not be doing more harm is that so few American instructors are actually fluent in a foreign language.

In Albuquerque, N.M., 16-year-old Lizet Aranda has joined a lawsuit charging bilingual education discriminates against Latinos on the basis of national origin. She laughed out loud when one of her teachers called a squid’s tentacles “testiculos,” or testicles. “We spent half the period arguing about it,” Aranda recalled for the San Jose Mercury News. “Finally, somebody opened the textbook and showed her the right word: ‘tenticulos.”‘

The vote in California was a victory for parents and for common sense. The only question is: Why did it take so long?

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