In a well-worn classroom at the San Fernando Elementary School, 30 miles north of Los Angeles, Aracelis Tester, a second-grade teacher, is reading ”Cuidado, un Dinosaurio!” – ”Watch Out, a Dinosaur!” – with her diminutive pupils. This could just as well be Mexico City or San Salvador, Grenada or Seville: a roomful of Hispanic children and a Hispanic teacher speaking Spanish.

In downtown Los Angeles, at a school called the Wilton Place Elementary, Chan Hee Hong, a first-grade teacher, is talking in Korean with the children of recent immigrants about the wonderful world of frogs. There are public schools in Oklahoma where Cherokee is the language of instruction. In Astoria, Queens, Greek is taught in Public School 122; Haitian Creole is a language of instruction in some 20 public schools in Brooklyn and Queens; New York, in addition, offers schooling in Chinese, Korean, French, Italian, Russian, Vietnamese and Khmer.

In the San Fernando Elementary School, the teaching of non-English-speaking children in their native language enjoys a virtually religious status: it is seen as a kind of panacea for the generally poor performance of Hispanic children in public schools. But at the Glenwood Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, a neighborhood of neatly kept stucco homes festooned with bougainvillea, bilingual education is anathema. The Glenwood teachers often conduct classes in Spanish, since they are given no choice by the Los Angeles School District. The school, a political model for some, is notorious for others. Hispanic demonstrators shouting ”racist” and carrying signs printed ”KKK” have picketed outside the school, where teachers have been outspoken in their view that teaching children in Spanish is a fraud, a trick played by tendentious adult theoreticians on innocent children. They say that bilingual education is a failure, a tactic that in the end will harm the chances of generally poor, non-English-speaking children ever having an equal share in the promise of American life.

The San Fernando school and the Glenwood school represent the two poles of a debate, already 20 years old, that has lately become more acrimonious than ever. This is a nation that has successfully absorbed millions of immigrants without creating a huge bureaucracy or spending tens of millions of dollars to teach them in the languages of their ancestors. But in the last few years, teaching children ”Watch Out, a Dinosaur!” in Spanish and talking to them about frogs in Korean has become a matter of deep importance to an ever-growing minority.

Part of the reason for this is that in America today more people speak foreign languages than ever before. Neighborhoods like those in the San Fernando Valley, whose residents were largely white and English-speaking 10 to 20 years ago, today have a Hispanic population of at least 90 percent. In Los Angeles, school-district officials say that there are, besides Spanish and English, seven other major languages being spoken in their district – Korean, Cantonese, Armenian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Farsi and Cambodian.

Why aren’t these students being taught only in the language of their newly adopted land? One reason is that organized minority groups are demanding they be educated in their native language, and they have won allies within the local education establishments of quite a few cities. For many of these minorities, the subject evokes deep emotions. Advocates of bilingual education believe that it represents the best chance for non-English-speaking children – who, not so coincidentally, often come from the lower-income groups – to enjoy the richness and opportunities of American life. ”We have found a way to achieve educational parity and, by the way, to have people who are competent in two languages,” said Raul Yzaguirre, the director of the National Council of La Raza in Washington, an umbrella group of several hundred Hispanic organizations.

This argument, once a minority position, has acquired a new ally in Washington. The Reagan Administration, with William J. Bennett as Secretary of Education, was at best ambivalent about bilingual education. Bennett spoke out strongly against the whole idea, believing that children who were taught in a foreign language were failing in school because of it.” The revised bilingual-education act of 1988 allows for up to 25 percent of the bilingual-education budget to be spent on alternative teaching methods; that is, programs other than native-language instruction.

Now the Bush Administration has appointed an unequivocal advocate of bilingual education, Rita Esquivel, to take charge of Federal programs in the Department of Education. ”We on the Federal level like to leave it up to the districts to decide on their particular program,” said Esquivel, the director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs. ”But we certainly would like them to maintain their native languages. That’s the President’s point of view.”

If the forces in favor of bilingual education have gained an ally in the White House, there are still plenty of people on the other side of the issue, people who are convinced that teaching children in their native languages is bad, both for them and the country. Bilingual education, they argue, is more likely to prepare minority children for careers in the local Taco Bell than for medical school or nuclear physics. ”It doesn’t work,” said Sally Peterson, a teacher at the Glenwood School and the founder of Learning English Advocates Drive, or LEAD, a group of teachers and citizens that has quickly gathered adherents across the country. ”It seemed to make a lot of sense and I bought it at the beginning, but after a year or so I saw that children were languishing in the program.”

The other, more subterranean part of the argument is political. Ethnic pride is involved here on one side, a sense that what is sometimes called ”white, Anglo” education is demeaning, psychologically harmful to minority groups. On the other side, there is a deep-seated worry that more is involved than an educational program to help minority students. The country is becoming far more ethnically diverse. Immigration is no longer the European affair it was during the first half of this century. Hundreds of thousands of people each year come from the Caribbean Islands, from the Middle East and from a dozen countries in Asia. In other words, just at a time when a more powerful glue is needed to hold the various parts of the society together, some critics see an ethnic and cultural assertiveness pushing it apart.

Bilingual education is only one element in this picture, its opponents believe, a reflection of intensifying demands within the schools for courses that represent the interests of particular ethnic constituencies. It’s no longer enough for children to learn who George Washington was. They have to learn to feel good about their own heritage. The much-discussed ”Curriculum of Inclusion,” produced by a special minority task force in New York State last year, argued that ”African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos and Native Americans have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European-American world for centuries.”

The solution, the task force concluded, was a new curriculum that, by concentrating on contributions by members of minority groups to the culture, would insure that minority children ”have higher self-esteem and self-respect, while children from European cultures will have a less arrogant perspective of being part of the group that has ‘done it all.’ ”

What’s at stake, then, is nothing less than the cultural identity of the country. Those who argue that bilingual education is a right make up a kind of informal coalition with those who are pressing for changes in the way the United States is perceived – no longer as a primarily European entity to which all others have to adapt, but as a diverse collection of ethnic groups, each of which deserves more or less equal status and respect.

”Rather than see the United States as a melting pot, we like to think of it as a salad bowl, with equal recognition of everyone, and I think bilingual education is part of that,” said Suzanne Ramos, a lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a group that has sued local school boards to force them to adopt native-language instruction for Hispanic youngsters. The fund’s goal, she said, is to have Spanish-language instruction in conjunction with the teaching of English for Hispanic students through the 12th grade – in the fund’s view, the best means of insuring that Hispanic culture is nurtured as part of the basic public-school routine.

”The disagreement is whether a child has a right to have his native language developed – not just maintained but developed,” said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, a professional organization that drafted much of the Federal legislation on bilingual programs. ”There is a racist xenophobia about Spanish in particular.”

Those on the other side insist that diversity is all well and good; but they argue that bilingual education could lead to an erosion of the national unity, a fragmentation of the nation into mutually hostile groups. Leading the fight is a group called U.S. English, whose major objectives are to promote opportunities for people to learn English and to get a constitutional amendment adopted that would make English the official language of Government. Founded by former Senator S. I. Hayakawa and including such eminent figures as Saul Bellow, Barry Goldwater and Eugene McCarthy on its board of advisers, U.S. English has seen its membership swell to 400,000 in just seven years of existence. ”Language is so much a part of our lives that it can be a great tool either for unity or disunity,” said Kathryn S. Bricker, the group’s former executive director. ”And we are getting close to the point where we have a challenge to the common language that we share. Just look at what’s going on in Miami, where a candidate to be school superintendent wanted everybody to have to learn Spanish.

”We are basically at a crossroads,” she added. ”We can reaffirm our need for a common language or we can slowly go down the road of division along language lines.”

Bilingual education owes its beginnings less to classroom experience than to ethnic politics. The first bilingual classrooms in recent decades were established in Miami among Cuban refugees – specifically at the Coral Way Elementary School, where, as James Crawford, a former editor for Education Week reported in his book ”Bilingual Education: History Politics Theory and Practice,” students were judged to be learning to ”operate effectively in two languages and two cultures.”

In 1968, Crawford reported, with the ethnic-consciousness movement picking up momentum, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, authorizing funds to give special help in educating children who did not speak English. Then, in 1970, a civil-rights lawyer in San Francisco, Edward Steinman, filed a suit on behalf of Kinney Lau and 1,789 other Chinese students who, he said, were failing in school because they could not understand the language of instruction. In a landmark ruling in 1974, the Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the Chinese students on the grounds that ”students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.”

Neither the Supreme Court nor Congressional legislation required that special help for non-English-speaking students include instruction in their native languages. The motivation behind the suit was to obtain special help for these children so that they could learn English. But what is called Transitional Bilingual Education, the program to teach children in their native languages while they master English, was favored by various groups, including the Carter Administration’s Department of Education. It was adopted by many school systems as the bilingual concept caught on – rather than the kind of all-English special help, generally called ”sheltered English,” preferred by some teachers. Meanwhile, Hispanic groups became convinced that the use of Spanish in classrooms would help to overcome the difficulties Hispanic youngsters were experiencing in schools, giving them the second-highest dropout rate of any group in the country.

This does not mean that the Hispanic population is unanimous about the virtues of bilingual education. One celebrated dissenter is Richard Rodriguez, the Mexican-American writer, whose autobiography, ”Hunger of Memory,” is a vivid portrait of the Hispanic experience. In one frequently quoted passage from his book, Rodriguez remembers how it felt when, for the first time, he found he could use English in school and be understood. ”The belief, the calming assurance that I belonged in public, had at last taken hold,” he wrote. ”It would have pleased me to have my teachers speak to me in Spanish, but I would have delayed having to learn the language of public society.”

The Hispanic establishment tends to see the matter differently. Organizations like the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund have brought class-action suits to force recalcitrant school districts to create bilingual programs. Raul Yzaguirre, the head of the National Council of La Raza, claims that bilingual education is the accepted means of reversing the traditionally poor performance of Hispanic students. He enumerates the reasons why these pupils need a kind of treatment that previous immigrants did not require. ”One factor is numbers,” Yzaguirre said, referring to the large concentrations of Spanish-speaking people in certain areas of the country. ”There’s a critical mass. Second, it’s a group of people attached to a particular place. The U.S. came to them. They didn’t come to the U.S., so the idea of coming to a new country and having to adapt to it is not part of the mentality of many Hispanics.

”Another reason is that it works. I was around when bilingual education was born. The impulse wasn’t driven by any need to preserve language. It was driven by a yearning for solutions to help the most undereducated minority in this country.”

In a small, spartan office in downtown Los Angeles, Amelia McKenna, a former teacher who is now the assistant superintendent of the office of bilingual instruction, begins a brief in favor of bilingual education by exploding what she sees as some ”myths” of yesteryear. Among them: that the old-fashioned teaching methods prevalent in the time of our grandparents worked so well that there is no reason to change them now.

”We don’t know what the dropout rate was, but it was probably very high,” McKenna says. The Los Angeles Unified School District where she works is the second largest in the country after New York, with some 600,000 students in more than 800 schools. ”But it wasn’t noticeable then,” she says, ”because the economy absorbed unskilled labor.” Now the economy requires quality education for success.

There are 213,000 ”limited-English proficient students” in the Los Angeles system, according to McKenna, using the standard bilingual-education term for students who need help in English. A year ago there were 184,000. ”With that number of kids, it’s clear that we’re growing drastically,” McKenna says. ”And we’re not going to be educating them for the 21st century if we just continue what we have been doing in the past.”

Those who need help fill up whole classrooms, whole buildings, McKenna maintains. There are many schools in the Los Angeles District that have a Hispanic enrollment of well over 90 percent. Students live in almost entirely Spanish environments, watching Spanish-language cable-television stations, speaking Spanish in the classroom, in the streets, in the home. Many of the ”limited English proficient” students – or L.E.P.’s, as they are known – do badly; others, particularly those from Asia, do well, even without any remedial help. ”A lot of the Spanish children are refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala,” McKenna points out. They are poor and do not have much of the preschool experience that will help them to meet the demands of early education. ”The Cantonese, the Koreans and the Armenians are more affluent,” McKenna says.

At the Los Angeles School District, one of the books most commonly used for reference is a volume called ”Empowering Minority Students,” written by Jim Cummins of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Cummins’s work, printed by the California Association for Bilingual Education, so well sums up the underlying issues of the debate that it is cited by both sides: one side uses it to show the theoretical justification for bilingual education, the other to prove bilingual education’s ulterior political motives. Cummins raises all the themes of the bilingual argument: it endorses multiculturalism; criticizes what he calls the ”societal power structure” of white, English-speaking America, and claims that native-language teaching is not just an educational device, but a blow against an inherent injustice.

”Empowering Minority Students” does not argue that a child’s inability to speak English is what leads him to fail if he is put into an English classroom. Children fail, Cummins says, because they are made to feel ”shame” for belonging to a minority group, for not being a part of the ”dominant group.” The only way to ”empower” such children, he argues, is for teachers to ”consciously challenge the power structure both in their classrooms and schools and in the society at large.” Bilingual education, he writes, is an ”empowerment pedagogy.” It is an act of rebellion against white, Anglo domination.

Teachers in the Los Angeles system say Cummins’s book is being taught in the special classes required for teachers to learn the bilingual-education methods. ”His ideas are accepted because they are useful to the bilingual-ed establishment,” said Rosalie Pedalino Porter, a former educator from Massachusetts who has recently written a book, ”Forked Tongue,” that chronicles her disillusionment with the bilingual-ed method. ”It’s the old business of being a professional victim, of not admitting that anything good has ever been done for minorities. Otherwise you couldn’t keep asking for special treatment.”

The idea of encouraging children who don’t speak English to learn proficiency in their native language sounds like a plausible way to redress social inequality. But Porter is convinced that it could also have a negative effect. ”Before the utopia arrives,” she said, ”and everyone has equal access, we are going to have generations of children who are going to be in tough shape if they’re not able to use the language of the majority.”

She was alluding to a basic element of the bilingual debate that continues to swirl over the heads of some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in the land, children who drift from one place to another, whose struggling parents cannot afford the luxury of reading them bedside stories, whose neighborhoods are often infested with gangs and drug dealers. ”Maintaining their language and their culture would be nice,” Porter said, ”but it’s not as important as helping them learn to succeed in American life.”

In a fifth-grade classroom at San Fernando Elementary School, Martha Ruiz, who is fluent in Spanish and English, sits at a low table with a group of a dozen or so little boys and girls, speaking to them only in English. She asks what a potion is, and a young girl with long hair and large black eyes replies in what sounds like perfectly mastered English: ”It’s something that could change you into a frog or something.” This class is the presumed end result of T.B.E. – Transitional Bilingual Education, in the pedagogic lexicon – and illustrates another tenet of the bilingual philosophy: that once basic skills have been mastered, children can make the transition from their native language to English without losing ground.

”Before,” says Candida Fernandez-Ghoneim, San Fernando Elementary’s principal, ”in most bilingual programs, the kids were put into English so quickly that third graders would be reading at kindergarten levels and the students’ self-esteem was damaged. Now, we take the time to give the kids a real foundation, and they are really reading at their proper level. If they’re depressed, if they don’t feel good about themselves, they’re not going to make it. But if they feel they’re learning something, then you’ve won. Then they want to learn all by themselves.”

It seems to make sense; certainly it does at Fernandez-Ghoneim’s school, which imparts a warm feeling to a visitor, a sense that the children of migrant families struggling economically are learning. But Sally Peterson’s kindergarten class at Glenwood, where bilingual education is the enemy, also makes a favorable impression. The student constituency here is very similar to the one at San Fernando Elementary, with a high concentration of Hispanic children from migrant families; but Peterson concentrates on children whose parents have opted for virtually all-English instruction and she says that they are learning faster than the others.

Peterson and a junior colleague, Tracy Teitler, preside over 28 5- and 6-year olds sitting at two large tables in a gaily decorated classroom that has an air of controlled disorder about it. Hispanic children number about 20; there are a couple of Japanese; there is a Filipino; there are a few native English speakers. Over at San Fernando Elementary, they say that Sally Peterson is an advocate of what is pejoratively called ”sink or swim” – just throwing foreign or Hispanic children into English-language classrooms and expecting them to absorb the language as if by magic.

Peterson replies that she gives special attention to the children who might have difficulty understanding English. You have to use drawings and act things out; you can speak a little Spanish here and there when it is necessary. You hug kids; you console them; you make sure that they understand what you tell them. Within about two years, she says, those who started out with no English master it very well, illustrating the near-miraculous speed with which children will learn the language of their environment.

The San Fernando School, one of seven model bilingual-education schools that have been created in Los Angeles (they are named Eastman Schools after the downtown school where the program was pioneered), has the resources to carry out a model program. But what about the other 830 schools in the Los Angeles School District? There, the results are not so promising, Peterson claims. The teachers themselves in many cases speak Spanish far better than English and the children thus end up in Spanish-speaking ghettos.

”I call it bilingualgate,” Peterson says. ”The stated goal is to teach children English. At least, that’s what they say. What they’re not saying is that their agenda really calls for Spanish for as long as possible. It’s because of the industry that has been created. It’s because it’s really a jobs program for Spanish-speaking teachers. The whole program actually punishes success, since those jobs and all those subsidies would be threatened if the children actually learned English.”

Among the subsidies in English cited by Peterson is a $5,000 bonus for teachers who are proficient in Spanish. No such bonus is available for any other type of special skill. In addition, there are local and Federal subsidies worth about $350 for each child in a bilingual class. ”If you’re against them,” Peterson says of the bilingual-ed establishment, ”they try to make it look as though you’re anti-child. But the fact is that it’s their industry that we are threatening.”

In his autobiography, ”A Margin of Hope,” the critic Irving Howe, speaking about the ”ethnic” generation of the 1920’s and 1930’s, recalls his hunger for school as a child of Jewish immigrants growing up in the Bronx; for Howe, mastering the English language was a badge of Americanness. ”The educational institutions of the city were still under the sway of a unified culture, that dominant ‘Americanism’ which some ethnic subcultures may have challenged a little, but which prudence and ambition persuaded them to submit to,” he writes.

The question now is: What is the ”dominant Americanism”? Can there even be such a thing in a country committed to a kind of ethnic self-realization that did not exist when Howe was growing up? The answers will be hammered out in the years ahead in classrooms like Aracelis Tester’s and Sally Peterson’s, and they have to do with more than pedagogical philosophy. In the end, the way language is taught in this country will reflect where the country is going, its very identity.

Richard Bernstein is a national cultural correspondent for The New York Times.

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