WASHINGTON – EVERY SUMMER, for the past few years, New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield has written a front-page story about two interesting facts: Levels of crime are decreasing in the United States, and prison populations are growing. The trouble is that, instead of detecting a connection between the two statistics, Mr. Butterfield and his editors are simply puzzled by the evidence.
In August, this was the story headline: Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction. In 1997, the Times informed readers that Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling. In 1998, it came out this way: Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops. And yet over all these years, it seems never to have occurred to Mr. Butterfield and his colleagues that crime has decreased because more criminals are behind bars.
Too simple, perhaps, and too logical to be true.
That’s why my eye caught a recent Times headline: Test Scores Rise, Surprising Critics of Bilingual Ban. Reporting from Oceanside, Calif., Jacques Steinberg revealed that two years after Californians adopted Proposition 227 which virtually banned bilingual education in the Golden State, requiring a million Spanish-speaking students to immerse themselves in English as if it were a cold bath those same students are now reading and writing English, and showing improvement in all subjects, at strikingly improved rates. And in just one year.
Too simple, perhaps, and too logical for some – but still true: If you want schoolchildren to succeed in America, they must learn to read and write English as quickly as possible. That used to be what most educators believed; now test scores confirm it.
Of course, the problem with all this is that, in the debate over bilingual education, ideology usually trumped common sense. Bilingual education really got going in the late 1960s and early ’70s as a means of sliding federal money into local school districts. In the intervening decades, however, it became a way of life. Certain school districts, especially in the Southwest, grew dependent on federal dollars earmarked for bilingual programs, and the population of bilingual teachers and administrators just kept growing. Moreover, students were not just staying in bilingual classes for years on end, they were not really bilingual at all. Bilingual education became another way of saying Spanish-only.
>From the very beginning, this was a curious fit. America is a nation of immigrants, and in the past century and a half, most of our new citizens came from non-English-speaking countries. Children who wished to become full-fledged Americans were not just encouraged to learn English as quickly as possible, but were re-quired to do so, sink or swim.
This was not a racist impulse, as bilingual advocates like to argue. English is the predominant language in America in the world, really and people who cannot speak the language won’t progress very far. Nor is it an English-only brand of chauvinism. People who speak more than one language have a natural advantage over others; but an American who isn’t proficient in English is handicapped for life.
But what makes sense, and is best for all Spanish-speaking students, is not what education bureaucracies across America practiced. In the past 30 years, bilingual programs exploded in America’s elementary and secondary classrooms, and bilingual education became a political weapon. Which is too bad, because as bilingual programs proliferated, the education of native-Spanish-speaking students swiftly deteriorated. By the time they got to high school, bilingual students lagged dramatically in basic proficiency and standardized test scores. That is what prompted Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz to design and promote Proposition 227, and has encouraged him to duplicate the process in neighboring Arizona.
But while no research has ever revealed any advantages in bilingual education, the results are in on its failings. And if you don’t think those results are persuasive, consider Ken Noonan, superintendent of schools in Oceanside, the son of a Mexican mother, and founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators.
When he saw how quickly Oceanside’s Spanish-speaking students picked up English, and clobbered neighboring Vista (which has re-tained some bilingual programs) on test scores, Noonan had what he calls a religious conversion. Now, he says, I am convinced that English immersion does work, and that it should begin on a student’s first day of school. And moving students as quickly as possible into English-immersion programs is far more important than my former romantic notions that preserving the child’s home language should be the ultimate goal of our schools.
Simple, logical, and true.
Philip Terzian, the Journal’s associate editor, writes a column from Washington.