Proposition 227. Although his extensive and lucrative contracts — with the state, private curriculum companies, and the many school districts that have adopted Krashen’s theories — have made him a wealthy and powerful man, Krashen is today the most elusive figure in the bilingual education debate.
Although readily available in person to his students and avid supporters, such as the California Association for Bilingual Education, Krashen communicates with the media by fax. He spends hours on the Internet poring over letters-to-the-editor pages and chat rooms and responding to those who question his ideas about how children learn language.
Krashen has spent the 1990s in California developing a network of thousands of adoring teachers who embrace his theories. He has convinced most of the curriculum bureaucrats in the State Department of Education, the Los Angeles County Office of Education, and the Los Angeles Unified School District that his ideas are sound. And he has spread his theories to college professors nationwide with nearly a dozen books and 180 papers propounding his beliefs.
In Los Angeles today — from Cal State Northridge to Cal State Long Beach to UCLA — it is nearly impossible to find a college student in training to become a teacher who does not know and espouse Krashenology.
But as critics of the state’s failing bilingual education program point out, there is no proof that Professor Krashen’s theories are correct. In fact, no scientifically sound studies exist that prove his “bilingual” education philosophy works any better than doing nothing at all for immigrant children.
In hundreds of speeches the tireless Krashen has given promoting and selling his system, he invariably cites five or six key studies, which he tells his rapt audiences, prove that teaching immigrant children for up to seven years in their native Spanish, before they learn English, is the best way to ensure their literacy in English.
“We’re right, and the research proves it!” Krashen declared to cheering supporters at an anti-Prop. 227 rally last month.
But according to many authorities on learning to read and write a new language — experts who have taken no side in California’s battle over Proposition 227 — the grab bag of “research” on which Krashen heavily relies is not viewed as serious science outside his and his adherents’ emotional world.
Christine Rossell, a Massachusetts researcher who has conducted an exhaustive analysis of these studies, says California has built its multi-billion-dollar bilingual education industry on a dream. In fact, Rossell found, only 72 studies of bilingual education exist that bothered to use scientifically accepted methods, such as control groups and random selection; most of the hundreds of other studies have been conducted by bilingual education true believers who skewed their research and rendered it meaningless.
Of the sound research Rossell found, only a handful of studies showed modestly positive results teaching English using bilingual “transition” methods. Most importantly, not a single study exists showing that the method is better than simply teaching immigrant children intensive English from day one. “Rama, Rama, Krashen, Krashen, Rama, Rama.” — L.A. Unified School Board Member David Tokofsky, mouthing the Mantra that educators in California must chant to get promoted.
In short, Rossell found, California-style bilingual education is working nowhere.
“The idea that one should withhold English from a child so that he can gain his skills first in the language of his parents, and that this will translate into becoming literate more quickly in English, is simply not how it works,” Rossell asserts. “You do not teach someone five years of skateboarding when you want them to learn to surf, even if skateboarding helps a little with things like balance and fitness. But that is what California is doing with Mexican-American children. When I tell researchers in Europe that in America we are teaching children Spanish first to move them into English later, they act like I’m joking.”
Krashen sells his ideas by working audiences at schools and convention gatherings like a tent preacher, smiling and making eye contact with individual followers and romancing his microphone like country crooner Garth Brooks. His successful sales pitch relies upon telling teachers and bureaucrats what they want to hear: that they are already doing what is right, but need his help to really achieve excellence. As Krashen said to one of his audiences: “My approach is counter-intuitive: Teach children in their primary tongue, so that you can get them to learn English? It sounds funny, but as the research shows, it’s the best way to do it.”
For a long time, many academics were mystified by California’s claim that there is valid research backing Krashen’s brand of bilingual education, but they said nothing. It was unpopular politically within the nation’s university and college system to attack a politically correct approach that appeared to be aimed less at teaching English, and more at preserving the Spanish language that children often spoke with their Mexican parents.
When the state legislature formally approved laws in the mid-1970s that emphasized the teaching of Spanish for one to three years before “transitioning” children into English, there was only weak opposition. Although the public did not pay close attention, inside the classrooms in California the new law quickly came to mean that schools could teach children in Spanish almost exclusively for three or four years and still call it “bilingual” education.
Within a short time, Krashen, a UCLA-trained professor, was speaking to school groups and offering proposals on exactly how to teach “bilingual” education. Krashen based many of his ideas on the theories of Professor Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto. Cummins saw the dominant English language in Canada as a repressive tool used to blot out smaller cultures, such as the French Canadian. In the United States, the pair found a ready audience for their beliefs among the often politically liberal ranks of teachers working in urban schools with immigrant children.
Former California school Superintendent Bill Honig says Krashen provided academic cover for the Chicano political agenda in California. “It was such a strong lobby that they steamrolled right over the state law down at the school district level,” Honig says. “I kept getting reports that the lobby just wanted the kids to learn in Spanish so they didn’t lose their heritage and culture. Period. Teaching those kids English immediately took a backseat.”
There was just one catch to Krashen and Cummins’s then-blossoming theories: Neither man had ever used his ideas to teach a second language to classes of small children in his life, and neither had ever tested his ideas in an unbiased study of real classrooms.
Even worse, Krashen critics point to the fact that until California began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into bilingual education, Krashen had embraced “structured immersion” English-language training for children — the polar opposite to bilingual education.
Professor Rossell of Boston, who has extensively analyzed why bilingual education is failing in the United States, says Krashen did a sudden flip-flop in his beliefs just when the financial bonanza — now more than $500 million a year — for bilingual education began pouring in to school districts out of Sacramento.
“I see Steve Krashen as an incredible cynic and opportunist, not as a believer,” says Rossell. “He was an avid backer of immersion English to learn another language until the big money went a completely different direction. It is my belief that Krashen and Cummins came up with their theory of language acquisition to justify a practice that was spreading like wildfire through the schools.”
Indeed, in a videotape of Krashen that was widely seen by Los Angeles teachers being retrained in his bilingual education beliefs, Krashen looks into the camera and admits that until the mid-’70s, he promoted traditional immersion-style teaching, such as explaining the rules clearly and correcting student errors, as well as emphasizing grammar and conversation.
“I wrote several technical papers saying this, that were published in the best journals,” Krashen chuckles of his old position. “They’re all wrong. The research shows it.”
The torturous route by which California came to so embrace an unproven theory, spending billions of dollars and involving millions of children, began in the 1960s, when key figures such as famous math teacher Jamie Escalante and former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Julian Nava butted heads over how Mexican children should learn English and other academic subjects.
Although it is not generally known, one of the reasons Escalante left Los Angeles was over his disgust with L.A. school bureaucrats who accepted Chicano demands for teaching immigrant children in Spanish. Escalante believed the road to success was in English. He lost that battle, and Nava won.
For Nava it was a huge victory, even though he believes the current bilingual system is “an incredible mess.” Says Nava of those early days, “We made people understand that the pull of the border, the pull of Spanish, would never release these children. That is what makes Mexican children different from every other immigrant group that has ever come to America.”
For Chicanos, the biggest victory came with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Lau decision in 1974, which ordered public schools to provide help to children who spoke foreign languages. Although that “help” was never specified, the response in California was to emphasize teaching the native language to immigrant children — at least if the child spoke Spanish.
The court victory was as much a political win as a policy victory. Children were not just taught in Spanish, but increasingly were taught Mexican history at the expense of American history, and at some schools were immersed in Mexican culture even while living in Los Angeles or San Francisco. For 20 years, few questioned that approach. Test scores and graduation rates for Mexican-American children were abysmal, but this was laid to poverty, home conditions, and the shock of being newly arrived in a foreign culture.
Nevertheless, discontented parents and educators, at first in Orange County, and later elsewhere in the state, began to challenge the system in the 1990s. The movement against bilingual education grew after dirt-poor, culture-shocked children, such as Indochinese and Armenian refugees, consistently performed better than Mexican kids — without the bilingual books and bilingual teachers that Krashen insisted they must have.
The bilingual battle finally made national news in 1996, when a public school was boycotted by the Skid Row activist and Episcopal priest Alice Callaghan, and by 100 angry Mexican parents who could not get their grade-school children into English classes at the heavily immigrant Ninth Street School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“If our protest had not ended up on television and in national newspapers, I dread thinking about how long it would have taken to wake people up,” Callaghan says today.
Callaghan realized a few years ago that a core problem within L.A. schools was their use of a bilingual education method that melded Krashen’s now-discredited “whole language” theory with his newly adopted bilingual education theory. At all L.A. grade schools (including Ninth Street), during the scant half-hour of English as a Second Language then provided to Latino children, teachers were forbidden from teaching grammar, writing, phonics, or using other traditional tools of academia — all of them strongly discouraged by Krashen.
Two years ago, in a speech at the Hollywood Women’s Club, LAUSD bilingual chief Carmen Schroeder explained that the district’s Master Plan for Bilingual Education allowed L.A. teachers to use only sing-alouds, picture games, and other non-academic techniques for teaching Latino children English. Nowhere does the Master Plan suggest that teachers must actually teach children to read or write English.
Doug Lasken, a veteran educator who has led the charge against bilingual education within the United Teachers of Los Angeles, says, “My God, these children can learn to read and write English fast when we teachers ignore the district’s idiotic rules.” “My figures show that more than 2.5-million kids statewide have not made it as a result of bilingual education. What an atrocious situation, and Krashen helped create this.” — Isaac Cubillos, editor of Latino Beat.
Another huge problem Callaghan discovered was that Mexican-American children were automatically being forced into Spanish classes for their entire grade-school years, even if they spoke English. “We discovered that children who admitted that their grandparents or parents spoke Spanish were dooming themselves to an all-Spanish education,” she says.
In order to get out of Spanish classes, Latino third-graders in Los Angeles have for several years been required to pass the CARE test, a part-English, part-Spanish exam whose written English questions are far too difficult for most immigrant children to answer correctly, even those who are already fluent speakers of English.
The schools reap tremendous benefits from refusing to graduate immigrant children from Spanish to English classes. Every student who is “transitioned” means the school loses its special bilingual funding based upon head-counts. Even worse, bilingual teachers are paid a $5,000 bonus per year only if they keep their students in Spanish, not English.
Alicia Benavides, a first-grade teacher at Budlong Elementary School, has chosen to forgo the $5,000 bonus pay, and skirts the district’s rules by urging her Latino parents to demand English-only for their children in first grade. “I told the principal I do not agree with bilingual,” says Benavides, who is fluent in Spanish. “My first-graders would not have been allowed to take the CARE exam until third grade, after three years of games instead of learning real English. They would never have passed the English section of the test. It’s like walking into a lecture hall and having an exam in history when you’ve been studying poly sci.”
Today, Benavides’s low-income, culture-shocked, Latino immigrant students are reading at a normal first-grade level in English after one year of her English-immersion teaching. “My kids are succeeding because their parents insisted on their right to English, and they had to demand, and demand, and demand three times before the school honored that right. The bilingual system is horror, horror, horror.”
But Krashen and his cohort, Cummins, have convinced L.A. Unified bureaucrats, the teachers’ union, and other school districts nationwide that immigrant children who speak English by kindergarten or first grade are exhibiting a false ability to master English that should be largely ignored until the child has had several years of formal schooling in Spanish.
Their theory, which has never been proved by serious research, holds that the thousands of grade-school-age immigrant children in Los Angeles who naturally pick up English on their own are displaying BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills) when they, in fact, have no mastery of CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency).
“These acronyms batted about by Krashen and Cummins just make my flesh crawl,” Lasken says. “In Los Angeles, the CARE test is actively used to hold back tens of thousands of kids who have already made the jump to English as small children on their own. And it’s all about money.”
Now teaching fifth grade at Ramona Elementary School, Lasken sees the results of four years of “bilingual” education on children in his classroom, who by-and-large were raised in California but have received almost no academic instruction in English phonics, grammar, spelling, reading, or writing.
“My fifth-grade class would have a difficult time with a second-grade Houghton-Mifflin textbook,” Lasken says. “The idea that holding them in Spanish gives them a boost later in English is pure garbage. These kids are as sturdy and as clever as any other immigrant kids, but they have been severely and artificially held back by being segregated into Spanish.”
When the bilingual children from Ramona Elementary enter sixth grade at Le Conte Middle School, very few can read the Houghton-Mifflin books for sixth-graders written in English. One teacher at Le Conte laboriously rewrites sentences from the book on his blackboard each morning in beginner’s English so the children at least get some small bits of information. Le Conte then feeds these middle-school children into Hollywood High School, one of 10 Los Angeles high schools where 40 percent or more of the students are still designated as not proficient in English by the time they reach high school.
Although Krashen routinely blames the high levels of English illiteracy in the city’s high schools on “newcomer” immigrants or a lack of books, the truth is that few Latino high school students in L.A. are newly arrived, and the vast majority have had years of exposure to schoolbooks. In fact, most of these teenagers have been warehoused year after year in the Krashen-inspired bilingual program.
The 10 high schools with more than 40 percent of the teenagers still not proficient in English — Belmont (55 percent), Fremont (54 percent), Hollywood (52 percent), Huntington Park (40 percent), Jefferson (58 percent), Jordon (43 percent), Lincoln (44 percent), Los Angeles (46 percent), Roosevelt (43 percent), and Manual Arts (48 percent) — send few children on to community college, state college, or universities, according to a recent computer analysis by the L.A. Times.
Despite such dramatic failures, LAUSD bureaucrats and the elected Board of Education strongly embrace bilingual education. Indeed, the district’s Bilingual Methodology Study Guide for teachers states on page nine (under its “Highlights From Research On Bilingual Education): “Ironically, excessive use of English in bilingual classrooms tends to lower student achievement in English.”
Moreover, although immigrant parents in America have long been known for urging their children to speak English, the LAUSD study guide urges just the opposite. In Part III, page eight, the manual states: “Teachers should not encourage minority parents to switch to English in the home. Rather, they should encourage them to strongly promote the development of their native language.”
It is this sort of questionable social engineering that has gotten the bilingual education movement into such severe trouble with voters in California. A recent Times Poll shows that 63 percent of voters favor Prop. 227, 23 percent are opposed, and Latino support has surged from 57 percent to 63 percent.
But Krashen seems oblivious to the extensive failures angering parents and voters. In a recent speech to an anti-Prop. 227 rally held by the John Adams Middle School Parent Teacher Student Association, Krashen announced to cheers and applause: “The data and research show how bilingual education children learn their English better than others, and LAUSD has data showing it!”
When asked by an audience member how to persuade a friend to vote against Prop. 227, Krashen advised the woman to tell her friend that a few “bad programs” have unfairly ruined bilingual education’s reputation. “We do know that the one or two mistakes made are repeated by the press again and again,” Krashen told the audience. The applause was thunderous.
Like all of the leading proponents of bilingual education, Krashen has a lot to lose if Prop. 227 passes. After the speech at John Adams, Krashen and an assistant stood at a folding table and — in the long tradition of American capitalist authors — sold Krashen’s many books extolling the virtues of his bilingual education beliefs. Priced from $3 to $24, the books are just part of Krashen’s mini-empire, which relies upon school districts, curriculum companies, and universities who embrace his theories as fact.
Public records obtained by New Times show that Krashen charges $250 an hour to train teachers and bureaucrats in his bilingual methods, and has been hired by at least 50 school districts nationwide.
According to a published investigation in the California Political Review of Krashen’s economic ties, he struck gold years ago when he met two leaders of the huge bilingual lobbying group, the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE). Krashen linked up with two of the association’s honchos, Shelly Spiegel-Coleman and Chuck Acosta, both avid bilingual-education advocates who worked in key positions for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
The author of the article, Robert Rossier, writes: “The two L.A. County consultants have been able to act as virtual agents for Krashen, recommending him for consulting and teacher training with school districts throughout L.A. County and in adjoining counties — all very lucrative work.” According to Rossier, Krashen is a featured speaker at California Association for Bilingual Education gatherings, where his books are heavily promoted.
The bilingual boom has made Krashen lots of money. In 1995, property records show, he bought a stunning, gated $700,000, four-bedroom home with a pool in Malibu — difficult to pay for on a simple professor’s salary.
Perhaps because he has so much to lose, Krashen has played loose with the facts in public to convince listeners that he is right. A few days ago, for example, Krashen told a rapt audience of supporters at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica that Alice Callaghan and the 100 Mexican parents who boycotted the Ninth Street grade school for refusing to teach kids English, “never ever petitioned that school before they launched their boycott. They never even asked for English!”
In fact, the Skid Row priest and the parents petitioned the school in writing three times and were roundly ignored by the school’s principal and L.A. school board member Victoria Castro — a fact which has been widely reported.
“Steve Krashen is shameless and will say simply anything,” accuses Callaghan. “When Prop. 227 wins next week, I think Krashen will turn around and embrace intensive English and say the research supports the new law — so he can keep making his money. He will continue to be a parasite on the backs of poor Latino children.”
Years ago, Krashen’s tall tales began attracting the attention of a Van Nuys father of an adopted Latino girl who is heading to kindergarten in L.A. next year. Hal Netkin, whose disagreement with Krashen-ology prompted him to become a stalwart member of the pro-227 volunteer corps, spends hours every week tracking Krashen’s claims on the Internet. “Krashen likes to say that only 30 percent of California’s foreign students are in bilingual education, and if more were in bilingual, it would be a big success,” says Netkin. “What complete hogwash. He knows that 60 to 70 percent of Spanish-speaking kids are warehoused in bilingual, and kids from other countries get to avoid it.”
Krashen’s biggest fibs involve the many studies he cites, including one purporting to show how quickly Finnish children learn Swedish using bilingual methods like California’s, in which Krashen claims that keeping Finnish children in their native language for several years promotes later success in Swedish. In fact, the study tracked a method which is virtually the opposite of California-style “bilingual”: Finnish children learned Swedish before they emigrated to Sweden, and thus quickly succeeded in Swedish after they moved.
Another Krashen favorite is an unpublished study co-authored by bilingual advocate Virginia Collier claiming to show that “two-way” immersion — in which mixed classes of English- and Spanish-speakers spend the day together learning both English and Spanish — is by far the superior way to teach English to immigrant children.
In truth, the Collier study has become an academic scandal because Collier pumped up the English literacy scores achieved by the immigrant children by adding in the scores of American children fluent in English. “Collier rigged the test,” contends researcher Rossell. At a conference both Rossell and Krashen attended in Washington, D.C., Rossell says, “Krashen agreed with me that the Collier study is a bunch of crap.” But when Rossell published a book that noted Krashen’s criticism of his bilingual ally Collier, Rossell says, “Krashen denied having ever criticized that study. He will say anything to win over a room.”
Others besides Krashen have benefited financially from the bilingual industry. David Ramirez, professor and head of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at Cal State Long Beach, has also built a career on promoting bilingual education. Ramirez is one of several so-called “researchers” Krashen cites to prove that bilingual education works.
Ramirez told New Times that his fight against Prop. 227 “is just a first rung in our effort to get California kids going multilingual and not relying on English as we are today, which makes no economic sense.”
In Ramirez’s view, bilingual education is a way to resist what he sees as politically oppressive aspects of English. “Women and people of color and many language groups don’t enjoy the same socio-political economic resources that white males do,” says Ramirez, “and language has been used in the U.S. throughout its history to disenfranchise such people. The idea that you need English to succeed in America is a crock.”
Isaac Cubillos, editor of Latino Beat, an online magazine about Latino issues based in San Diego, says that the leftist ideology that motivates Krashen and Ramirez is, in part, what inspired him to come out in favor of Prop. 227 recently.
“Five years ago you wouldn’t have caught me disagreeing with bilingual education because I knew zip — I only knew what reporters knew,” says Cubillos. But two years ago, he says, when California school Superintendent Delaine Eastin announced that whole language had failed as a reading method, leaving many thousands of California children nearly illiterate, “It rang a bell with me that Krashen had fought on behalf of whole language — the same person who is promoting bilingual education by saying the kids will just absorb the English somehow.”
So Cubillos undertook an investigation to find the classrooms where Krashen had conducted the research he so often cites on bilingual education. “I wanted to crunch the raw data myself, and that’s when I discovered that Dr. Krashen has done no research. It is purely a theory. There is no test data, there are no schools where it’s been proved, and it’s based on thin air.”
Cubillos then delved into an oft-cited David Ramirez study, one of Krashen’s favorites. “Ramirez’s study is based on Krashen’s theory,” says Cubillos. Although Ramirez defends his methodology, Cubillos says, “Ramirez went to the 10 best schools he could locate and skewed the results to bolster Krashen. It’s a useless study.”
Most ironic to Cubillos is what Krashen recommends in his latest book for educators who want to learn Spanish in order to be bilingual teachers. He recommends immersion language training in a foreign country. Snorts Cubillos: “His whole theory just blew up in my face when I realized Krashen recommends immersion for people who really want to learn a second language — but no immersion for Latino kids.”
Cubillos now debates on behalf of Prop. 227 at League of Women Voters’ gatherings around California, and three colleges have invited him to speak. But he has lost major advertising from the Mexican-American Professional Women’s Organization and others as punishment for his activities. “I have lost advertisers right and left, but I’m not going to shut up,” says Cubillos, “because my figures show that more than 2.5-million kids statewide have not made it as a result of bilingual education. What an atrocious situation, and Krashen helped create this.”
In recent letters to the editor that the prolific Krashen has dispatched to various newspapers, he has claimed that California’s approach to bilingual education mimics how European countries educate their immigrant populations.
But experts on the teaching of foreign languages say that Krashen is once again playing with the facts to promote his own beliefs and to protect his industry. Professor Walter Stewart, chairman of the foreign languages department at California Lutheran University, says that when he first saw a Krashen letter to the editor claiming that California mirrors the European approach, “I thought, ‘This guy is pulling somebody’s leg.’
“European countries do not teach immigrant children in their native language as a method for moving them into the language of the adopted country. Language teaching has not changed in Europe in 40 years because they refuse to do fads. They teach German by teaching in German, they teach French by teaching in French. That’s why Europeans have achieved multilingualism.”
According to Christine Rossell, the Boston researcher, a few host countries actually do teach children in their native tongues, including a tiny program in Germany to teach Turkish to Turkish children. However, such small programs are for the children of guest workers who intend to return to their native countries. By European standards, it would be considered absurd to place Latino children who are settling in the United States for good in Spanish classes.
“It’s very grave and very sad that we are the only country espousing this theory, with absolutely no scientific backup,” Rossell says.
It is difficult to pinpoint the year when Krashen’s theories began to replace those of experts, like renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, in college courses in California. But L.A. Unified School Board Member David Tokofsky, a vocal critic of Krashen’s beliefs, says that when he started teaching in the 1980s, “the stranglehold on every professional training course for teachers was that you have to make reference to Krashen. It was Krashen this, and Krashen that.”
Says Tokofsky, “This is how every administrator in the state got promoted from assistant principal to principal, or from teacher to bilingual coordinator, or from regional supe to district supe: By chanting the Mantra of ‘Rama, Rama, Krashen, Krashen, Rama, Rama.’ So how can you expect school bureaucrats to question him now?”
In fact, the bureaucracy of the huge Los Angeles Unified School District, which is educating one-fourth of California’s Spanish-speaking grade-school children using the bilingual approach (about 195,000 children), is a who’s who of Krashen disciples. Noma LeMoine, head of the LAUSD language-development program for black students, was a Krashen doctoral student at USC. Carmen Schroeder, the district’s longtime bilingual chief, who was recently promoted by Superintendent Ruben Zacarias to head of all classroom instruction for the district, is an aggressive promoter of Krashen’s views.
But Krashen’s real power is among teachers, thousands of whom have embraced his beliefs — less because they have read any of the “research” than because Krashen makes them feel good about what they are already doing inside their classrooms.
At a Prop. 227 debate a few months ago, Krashen demonstrated his enormous talent for wooing teachers with emotional appeals. He became the instant hero in a huge auditorium packed with bilingual educators during a debate with Gloria Matta Tuchman, a widely respected Latina teacher who successfully uses near-immersion English to teach Mexican-American children.
As Tuchman tried to explain the downside of bilingual education, hundreds of teachers booed, hissed, and shouted insults. When Krashen spoke about the wonderful job teachers were doing with bilingual education, however, the applause was deafening.
“It was as if the entire room was in a shared hypnotic trance,” says Matta Tuchman. “Thank God children don’t act like that.”
But the most unsettling moment came when the debate ended. Krashen was suddenly surrounded by throngs of teachers trying to get his attention, hug him, or merely touch his shoulder. Recalled one stunned non-educator in the audience: “An impromptu receiving line formed of teachers lining up for a chance to touch their guru, their Pied Piper. It was eery. It was the Church of Krashen.”
The emotional and almost religious underpinnings of the bilingual movement are so strong that critics are harshly criticized and often victimized. In school after school, examples abound of teachers who question Krashen’s bilingual dogma and who are dealt with harshly in return.
Kathleen Salisbury did not know that she was about to challenge a mass movement of true believers when she wrote a short op-ed piece for the Times’ Voices Section in July, 1997. As a fifth-grade teacher at Hooper Avenue School, one of the 100 lowest-performing in LAUSD, she wondered in print why the district was in a “frenzy” to hire non-credentialed, inexperienced people who happen to speak Spanish, allowing them to push out experienced, dedicated, fully credentialed teachers.
In her published piece, Salisbury noted that under L.A.’s bilingual plan, teachers with 20 or 30 years in the classroom were being re-designated as “teachers in training” and listed as “mis-assigned” because they did not speak Spanish. “Many good, experienced teachers have left my school, replaced by novices,” Salisbury wrote in the Times.
The response inside her school was shocking to Salisbury.
Two days after her article ran, she was in her classroom when the loudspeaker buzzed and a Latino teacher announced that he was organizing a meeting after school to plan a rebuttal action against her article. That teacher, Richard Rivera, also met with Hooper’s principal and demanded that Salisbury be transferred.
Soon, Rivera and a handful of Latino teachers were meeting with Spanish-speaking parents, telling them that Salisbury was a racist. Recalls Salisbury, “When I tried to talk to them, they told me that my saying that Latino teachers are no good was racist, which is not what my article says. Two little girls in my class were crying because their mothers told them I was being transferred.”
Undeterred, she met with interested Latino parents to explain that, under existing California law, all immigrant parents have the right to demand an English education for their children. “These Mexican parents had never heard about their rights, and they put their names on a sign-up sheet to learn more,” says Salisbury. But Hooper’s principal, Wilhelmina Mussman, abruptly confiscated the list of parents who signed up, and despite protests from a constitutional rights attorney representing Salisbury, she has been unable to retrieve the list from Mussman.
In fact, when Salisbury asked Mussman to return the list, she was reprimanded and ordered by Mussman never to discuss the issue with Latino parents again. “I still want that list because these parents won’t call me first, since they have never stood up to a bureaucracy and are fearful,” says Salisbury. “The whole thing makes me sick.”
She blames the hatred to which she was subjected on Krashen and his colleagues in the district bureaucracy. “They have so mixed up their political ideology with classroom teaching that anybody who questions them is labeled a racist,” says Salisbury. “Teachers tend to be touchy-feely liberals and have a lot of guilt about what white people have done, so it is very easy to silence teachers by saying ‘racist’. But it makes me say, ‘I will be damned!’ I was the first and only white member of the NAACP in my town, and I know who I am. I have a right to try to make change happen.”
But change may be a long time coming even if Prop. 227 overwhelmingly passes Tuesday, as expected. The vast majority of the 195,000 grade-schoolers in Spanish bilingual programs in Los Angeles are now years behind in school, as are the high school students. Most are expected to never catch up.
Hooper Avenue School is no different. “The public doesn’t know that at Hooper Avenue School, these kids come to us in kindergarten readily speaking English, and that’s all most of them still know by the fifth grade,” Salisbury says. In fact, about 80 percent of the children entering her fifth-grade class each fall do not know the difference between a noun and a verb and cannot identify the U.S. as the country in which they are living.
“These children have lived in Los Angeles for years, but the most common single answer to the question, what country do you live in, is Mexico. What does that tell you?” asks Salisbury.
Rossell, the Massachusetts researcher, warns that test scores for Latino students are highly unlikely to improve even if bilingual education is tossed out by California voters. First, she says, poor children rarely do well in school, with or without language barriers — and that will not change even if they finally are taught to read and write in English. But more important, Rossell says, is that the bilingual-education movement and leaders like Stephen Krashen will do everything they can to subvert the law. (A bilingual teacher’s group in L.A. has already publicly announced that it will ignore Prop. 227 if voters approve it.)
“The liberals who have won the bilingual argument these past two decades, and created their hierarchies and industries, simply will never admit that they hurt a generation of kids,” says Rossell. “They will find ways to love what they have done, and they will probably preserve a great deal of their empire even if Proposition 227 passes. And I think the conservatives are blind to all this.”
That urge for self-preservation may account for the rumor — perhaps true, perhaps not — that was flying through both the pro- and anti-227 campaign camps in recent weeks: that Stephen Krashen has begun looking for a new opportunity outside California, where he can still sell his beliefs as scientific fact and ensure the survival of his dynasty. (New Times could not query Krashen on this proposition since he did not respond to a faxed request for an interview.)