HERE’S TO LUCY Rodriguez, wherever you are. You moved from Peru into my junior high school on Long Island knowing almost no English. Your classmates watched you progress book by book from a childish first-grade reader to nearly seventh-grade level, all in English, all in the course of a year.
I wonder what you think about the remarkable news from the West Coast.
Two years ago, Californians voted to abolish bilingual education. It was a noisy and contentious vote with supporters of bilingual instruction predicting disaster for Hispanic students if the program were ended. The early test scores coming out of the post-bilingual era do not confirm these fears.
Por el contrario, the results point not to ruin but to restoration of the students’ academic prospects.
Under the bilingual system, Hispanic children were taught science, social studies and other academic subjects in Spanish until they mastered English. California’s ballot initiative, Proposition 227, put an end to that approach.
But it did not fling new immigrant children into English-only math classes. The students first spent a year in an intensive study of the English language. After that, they joined regular classes.
This strategy appears to have worked. By the second year of post- bilingual education, immigrant students, especially those still in
elementary school, made big strides in reading and other subjects.
Endorsement of the change in strategy has come from none other than Ken Noonan, founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. “I thought it would hurt kids, he said, The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me.
Noonan is now school superintendent in Oceanside, north of San Diego. Oceanside has led the charge in converting to the new method.
Although other factors could have affected the scores, California can use the numbers to make good comparisons of English immersion and the bilingual alternative. In Oceanside, improvement on standard state tests was double that in Vista, a neighboring district where many students continued on the bilingual route. (The law allows students wanting to remain in a bilingual program to seek a waiver from the school.)
Anyone who keeps an ear to the ground would have known that the gig was up for bilingual education a long time ago. The telling moment came when schools started preventing Hispanic parents from
enrolling their children in the classes conducted in English. Many feared that their children were not learning English fast enough and complained of being shunted into an educational ghetto.
They were not far off. In some cases, children who entered school knowing more English than Spanish were being dragged into bilingual programs.
Simply put, three decades of bilingual education had created a bilingual teaching establishment that had to retain control of its captives. Highly paid bilingual teachers could not tolerate mass defections out of their classrooms.
California’s legislature could not stand up to the political pressures, and so it took a ballot initiative to put an end to the bilingual program. Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, led the Prop 227 campaign and took the flack. He was accused of being hostile to immigrants and all sorts of things. Unz must be happy today.
The positive numbers coming out of California should support a ballot initiative that would end bilingual education in Arizona. And
they may help efforts in Colorado, Massachusetts and New York State to eventually do likewise.
My junior high had few immigrants, and there were no formal programs to help them out. Perhaps the teachers had put Lucy into intensive English instruction for lack of alternatives. In any case, she seemed to enjoy taking the fast escalator to English proficiency.
The point is this: A girl from the Andes Mountains could parachute into a suburban American school and go with the flow within a year or two. I don’t know what has happened to Lucy since high school, but I’m willing to bet she’s doing better than all right.
The problem with bilingual education was not that it forced schools to spend more money on Hispanic children. It was not that teaching classes in another language threatened the primacy of English in American society. English remains king. Just ask the French.
The problem with the bilingual system was that it provided a second-class education for immigrant children. That problem may now be solved.
Froma Harrop is a Journal editorial writer and syndicated columnist. She may be reached by e-mail at: [email protected]