IF you wanted to assess new firefighting equipment, you would ask firemen for their opinions, wouldn’t you? Seems like a logical approach, yet in the ongoing debate on Ron Unz’s ”English for the Children” anti-bilingual education initiative, it’s a rare day when anyone asks a teacher how he or she likes bilingual education.
And when we do get around to talking to a teacher, it’s generally someone who’s getting a $ 5,000 payoff for supporting the program. Those are the teachers who don’t have to fear losing their positions for speaking out, and who have a lot of money at stake in the debate. As a fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles Unified, and the teachers union representative at my school, I’ve been working to change this situation.
Bilingual education as practiced in California’s public schools comes from an ivory-tower approach. Upon entering school, children are tested and designated ”EO” (English only), or ”LEP” (limited English proficient).
LEPs are supposed to be those who are not fluent in English, but often fluent English speakers are designated LEP based on use of Spanish in the home. Once a child is a LEP, he or she is placed in the bilingual program, where English is verboten. All textbooks are in Spanish (hundreds of other languages, from Tagolog to Vietnamese, do not have the numbers to rate bilingual education), and instruction is in Spanish. The only English permitted is during brief sessions of English as a Second Language, or ESL. Responding to complaints from parents and teachers that children were learning only Spanish, Los Angeles Unified expanded ESL from 30 minutes a day to 90.
However, under no circumstances may ESL include phonics, spelling, grammar or any academic material.
This is reality for 1.3 million LEP students in California, and 300,000 in LAUSD.
The ”bilingual” approach, which in practice is really a ”native language” approach, derives from ivory tower theories about Hispanic children’s need to master Spanish before trying English. It’s supposed to enhance acquisition of English, but how is it really working?
If you go in for statistics, how about this: California has a 40 percent Hispanic dropout rate, and three-quarters of those dropouts are graduates of bilingual programs. Or this, made famous by the Unz campaign: per state Board of Education figures, California has a 5 percent rate of transition from bilingual to English programs, translating into a 95 percent failure rate.
Of course, proponents of bilingual education have their own take on the figures, which brings me back to my point: What do the teachers, who actually have to carry out this program, think of it?
Well, if you find yourself a teacher who is not receiving a payoff for touting the party line, and who is tenured and thus not afraid of retribution from administrators, you will most likely hear this: The kids in bilingual programs are not learning English.
Even after escaping from the program sometime after the fifth grade, they cannot spell, write or read in English. The dropout rate and dismal test scores for bilingual graduates are no surprise to teachers.
And soon there will be public proof that teachers are not happy with bilingual education. Last summer, with help from many dedicated teachers, I gathered 800 signatures of members of United Teachers of Los Angeles to qualify a union referendum in support of English for the Children. We did qualify, with well over the 500 signatures required by union bylaws.
The voting is taking place this week, and the results will be known Monday. If the referendum passes, it will require UTLA to endorse replacing native language instruction with sheltered English immersion (English designed for new learners), and also will require the union to support the statewide English for the Children initiative.
The outcome is difficult to predict, but I do expect a strong ”yes” vote. And then we’ll know how the people most in a position to asses bilingual education feel about it.
EDITOR-NOTE: Douglas Lasken is a LAUSD teacher living in Woodland Hills.