If California’s education bureaucrats knew their business, there’d be no need for the state’s rebellious voters to have to use Proposition 227 to help the schools. And if California voters cared more about children than politics, there’d be no doubt about the initiative passing on June 2.
Prop 227 would largely eliminate what is called bilingual education in California. Students who are not fluent in English would be assigned to English-intensive classrooms for a year and after that would be expected to function in regular classes taught in English.
The popular movement to rescue immigrant children from what is an educational disaster has had overwhelming support, particularly from Hispanic parents. But backing has been slipping in recent weeks, as politicians try to turn the issue into a matter of ethnic pride and Democratic loyalty. Who cares about the kids?
In theory, bilingual education sounds reasonable and kind. Children would be taught grade-level subjects in their native language while they learned English at a comfortable pace. They would have greater self-esteem (which seems to be the major education goal for the ’90s) because the school would show respect for their native language and culture. Eventually, when they had been taught enough English, they would transfer to a mainstream classroom.
In practice, bilingual education has often been a disaster. Children in bilingual classes become segregated from other kids. Many schools can’t find enough bilingual teachers who are fluent in English and that may limit students’ exposure to English. Many youngsters take several years to learn enough English to function in mainstream classes. And irreplaceable years of their lives, when the brain is most adept at acquiring language, are forever lost.
In California, there have been other problems, too. Children in that state come to school speaking at least 55 different native tongues. Some of them are incorrectly placed in bilingual classes taught in an unfamiliar language. Some parents report that without their knowledge, their English-speaking children have been put in non-English classes simply because their surname sounds foreign.
It isn’t only soft-hearted theory that drives bilingual education. Schools get extra federal funding for students enrolled in such classes and have a financial motivation to make the numbers as high as possible. Immigrant communities see bilingual teaching as a good source of jobs. And politicians push it as a way to strengthen ethnic identity, preserve ethnic culture and enlarge voting blocks.
It has largely been angry parents who have pushed Proposition 227 as a last-resort way to rescue children from this educational malpractice. The initiative had decisive support in California, according to polls, until bureaucrats started fighting to keep the system and politicians twisted it into seeming to be a right-wing attack on ethnic groups.
Democrats are ferociously attacking Proposition 227 as anti-immigrant, racist and hateful. Even President Clinton and federal officials are campaigning against it. And the support from Washington is energizing opposition by Hispanic politicians in California.
But the issue should be clear. This country has an unequivocal interest in absorbing newcomers into its mainstream culture and promoting a common language. To do otherwise is to become a Bosnia, with ethnic groups competing, sometimes in ugly and dangerous ways, for turf, perks, preferences, influence and victim status. We should appreciate the native cultures immigrants bring to this country, but maintaining them should be private choices, not public responsibility.
The schools do have a responsibility to teach English to non-English speaking children in the most efficient and supportive way possible. Teachers, administrators and education bureaucrats also have the responsibility to study the research–especially how the brain learns language–and use what works best, regardless of political pressures. Polls consistently show that immigrant parents want their children taught English as quickly and well as possible.
Research and countless personal experiences clearly show that the brain has a special ability to acquire language early in life, when the brain is growing and basic language sounds and patterns can be easily encoded into the neurons. If given ample exposure, young children can easily learn a second language, too, without confusion and with enormous benefit. The longer a school delays immersing students in English, the more difficult it will be for them to learn.
(My husband started kindergarten speaking only German. He had an unhappy, rebellious first day, but then learned quickly and well enough to earn a post-graduate degree and become editor of a prestigious medical journal. He never lost his ability to speak German, although he rarely used it. I got A’s in Spanish in college, but can’t remember more than the dozen words I learned as a child.)
The year of immediate, intensive English training that Proposition 227 would provide for students who aren’t proficient in the language is much more neurologically and educationally sound than bilingual education. It will come much closer to answering parents’ demands that their children acquire English quickly and well, so they can succeed in American schools and in the American workplace.
English immersion early on can be kind, understanding and respectful of children’s native culture. It would solve the problems created in California by the multiplicity of languages children bring to school with them. It would make it easier for a new generation of immigrant kids to become full-fledged Americans, as their parents want. And that is the basis on which Californians should cast their votes on June 2.