Punished for Speaking Spanish?

Bilingual Education Unintentionally Segregates Students

Years ago, Mexican children were punished for speaking Spanish in U.S. public schools. They were spanked and their mouths were washed out with soap. Because of that dismal experience, Mexican-Americans considered the passing of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968 to be the key to opportunity for their children.

However, since that time, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Now Mexican-American parents protest that their children have been forced into separate but unequal classroom situations where they have been denied the opportunity to become fluent in what society calls “correct English.”

In 1976 I visited the public schools of border towns in the area of El Centro, Calif. I observed children learning to read in their first language and then receiving intensive oral language instruction in their second. The number of Spanish-dominant children equaled the number of those in the program whose dominant language was English.

Support from parents was considered essential; thus, only children whose parents had granted permission were allowed to participate. Some Hispanic parents refused because they feared that their children would not learn enough English. In other words, parents were given a choice.

When bilingual education came to the Phoenix Union High School District in 1990, I expected something similar to what I had seen in El Centro. Unfortunately, rather than seek permission from parents, the school officials merely sent them letters to inform them of their children’s placement.

English-dominant children were not included in the program. In fact, the Mexican-American children were segregated from the English-dominant students most of the day in both bilingual and ESL (English as a second language) classes. At the time I was one of the ESL teachers.

Soon I discovered that many of my students who had been in our public schools for as many as five years could not yet speak, read, and write English beyond the level of a beginner.

One student who wanted to move up and out asked me, “How can I learn English if the other students and most of my teachers speak to me in Spanish all the time?” He realized that he had been denied entry to the world of academic opportunity.

He dropped out of school the following year. Soon I transferred to a school within the district where the administrators insisted that the immigrant students be mainstreamed as soon as possible. However, those administrators are now long gone and bilingual classes are again on the increase.

Besides denying Mexican immigrants the benefits of English language immersion, our district curriculum director has opposed for years the suggestions of many ESL teachers that basic English grammar become a part of the ESL curriculum.

It is no surprise that, rather than upgrade our standards, she is fighting fiercely against AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards), in which the writing portion would require students to demonstrate solid control of subject/verb agreement, correct usage of irregular verbs and development of a variety of sentence structures.

She supports a system that keeps students together in a small box, with the tools of English mastery beyond their grasp.

Recent research indicates that bilingual education has been a failure. The results of a two-year study completed by the National Research Council contradict what teachers have been taught were the merits of bilingual education. The studies of Boston University professors have reached similar conclusions.

It is important to note that large numbers of Mexican immigrant students in the schools of the Alhambra Elementary and Glendale Union High School Districts of Arizona show impressive academic gains as evidenced by the Stanford 9 and other test results. Those students spend most of their time in classes with English-dominant classmates.

They are provided with Spanish-speaking resource teachers in pullout programs and ESL instruction aligned with the mainstream English curriculum, but no bilingual classes.

Mexican-Americans believed that bilingual education would protect their children from the pain they had suffered. Now they realize that it has only imprisoned them. The solution is found in those schools that offer the immigrant children both systematic instruction and immersion in English.



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