Most people agree that teachers are underpaid. Most teachers would agree that “underpaid” is a gross understatement. Even in the increasingly ugly contract negotiations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers’ union, both sides seem to see eye to eye on this point. Pleading fiscal limitations, management simply states that it would offer teachers more if there were more to offer.
So it comes as a shock — to use another understatement — when teachers want to eliminate a chance to make more money. But that is exactly what some teachers in the district want to do.
A group calling itself the Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD), which receives financial support from two ultraconservative English-only organizations, wants the United Teachers of Los Angeles to reject the district’s offer to pay bonuses of up to $5,000 a year to bilingual teachers.
A vehement opponent of bilingual education, LEAD founder Sally Peterson instead favors an English immersion approach for the district’s more than 160,000 limited-English-speaking students. The San Fernando Valley teacher calls the pay incentives “totally divisive” for union members.
UTLA President Wayne Johnson sees LEAD’s proposal itself as divisive at this crucial point in contract negotiations, and has urged that it be withdrawn or defeated. The union membership is to vote on the proposal later this month.
The consensus on both sides is that if LEAD’s initiative becomes union policy — Johnson sees its chances for passage as “very good” — it will deal a crippling blow to the district’s bilingual plan. The bonuses are essential if the district is to recruit and keep qualified bilingual teachers.
But the bonuses serve another important purpose: motivation. The district hopes that they will act as incentives for monolingual teachers to learn a second language.
Peterson’s claim that the bonuses create disunity falls apart on this point. Anyone can learn Spanish. Any teacher can become eligible for the bonus.
Does anyone object when a teacher’s salary is increased after he or she earns a master’s degree? Does anyone find it “divisive” when a teacher earns a few more salary points by taking a computer science class (or a basket-weaving one, for that matter)? Hardly.
But go take a class on Hispanic culture or, God forbid, try to learn Spanish, and just watch the English-only partisans rise up to object.
Most people know that learning another language is no easy task. There could be no better justification for bilingual education.
If confident, college-educated adults find it difficult to learn another language, how must children feel? Students in the “sink-or-swim” approach that LEAD backs are not only expected to learn English, but also reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies in English. Granted, children generally acquire languages faster than adults, but not that fast. The adult equivalent to what these children are asked to do is mind-boggling: simultaneously learning another language, say, Russian, while reading “War and Peace” in Russian and tackling chemistry from a Russian text. Good luck.
How did Peterson and her group become such enemies of bilingual education and the children it serves? The recent history of Glenwood School in Sun Valley, where Peterson teaches, sheds some light. The student population there has changed from predominantly white to mostly Latino in a short time. Frustrated at their own inability to meet the needs of their students, some teachers responded in reactionary fashion by demanding that students conform to the staff’s limitations. The goal of education became lost and LEAD was born.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Latino children might be physically punished by their teachers if they spoke Spanish in the classroom. (Perhaps for this reason, as she took me to my first day of kindergarten 25 years ago, my own mother warned me never to speak Spanish in school.)
The typical non-English-speaking student in an immersion program quickly falls behind. He becomes frustrated and alienated. He learns to dislike himself and to hate school. If the system continues to fail him, he may be drawn to gangs, drugs or crime. Any of these will give him more validation than he received in school.
(The feelings of inadequacy created by my own experience with language immersion techniques lasted long beyond elementary school. I am still dealing with some of them.)
Bilingual education is built on the belief that children progress faster if they are taught academic subjects in their native language while they are learning English. Its goal is to teach students English. The only goal Peterson seems to have is to teach students in English. There is a big difference.
Bilingual education is not perfect, but it is working. And considering LEAD’s alternative, one can only conclude that there is no alternative.
No one can doubt Peterson’s sincere dislike of bilingual education. Any teacher who would turn down money to make a point must be deadly serious. Just the same, her proposal is both anti-student and anti-teacher. The only real beneficiary of the referendum is paranoia.
Someone should remind the English-only advocates that the United States won the Mexican-American War; California really is part of the Union. And, yes, English remains firmly entrenched as an essential key to socioeconomic mobility.
The language of maids and menials, as some of these pseudo-patriots regard Spanish, poses no threat to the American Way. The threat comes when we fail our kids.
Joseph F. Kehoe teaches in the Los Angeles school district. He was born in Argentina.