Bilingual education advocates tend to de-emphasize the importance of mainstream classes and the general process of assimilation for new immigrant children altogether; they argue that bilingual education is just one method among many that will help our children succeed.
I would argue that the opportunity to rapidly learn English and participate in integrated, mainstream settings is an essential – probably the most important – benefit that public schools can offer to children of our increasingly diverse society. Any system of education that segregates young children of a particular immigrant group for more than three years does great harm to the life chances and future learning of these children and undermines the shared sense of civic community necessary for a democratic society. In fact, it is this shared aspiration of immigrant parents and children to integrate into American mainstream middle-class society, and the desire of native-born citizens to assist this process, which fuel the phenomenon called Proposition 227.
In the mixed classroom, the immigrant child not only picks up the English language – the language of global commerce and the Internet – but also cultural fluency in the various habits and customs which would enable him/her to navigate and work in our diverse society. Successful integration into the American mainstream offers immigrant children nearly unparalleled choices, compared to other countries, to learn and pursue their life aspirations: while some Korean-Americans, such as myself, choose to extensively study the Korean culture and language, many others decide to focus on the Romance languages or the Vedic texts, work as investment bankers, join a rock band or myriad other life options.
Immigrants should not be treated as some exotic tribe whose culture needs to be saved and preserved in static fashion: These new Americans, in the process of empowering themselves, will invigorate both their homeland and American cultures with elements from all over the world, and their own creativity.
Of course, nobody assumes that the process of integration is easy or smooth. While immigrant children today do not suffer the violent, anti-immigrant riots of the 19th and early 20th centuries (directed against Irish, Italians, Mexicans, Chinese and many other groups), they do experience numerous subtle and overt forms of discrimination. But how does separating Asian and Latino immigrant children from regular classrooms for four to ten years ameliorate racism, boost the self-esteem of immigrant children or encourage the integration of diverse students into a common community?
I am not aware of credible pedagogical reasons immigrant children should not be immersed in English as quickly and intensively as possible. The earlier the age, the better to absorb English and transition to mainstream classes. Scholarly research, such as that of pediatrics and neurology professor Arun Dabholkar at the University of Chicago, explains that foreign languages and music are best mastered before the age of 12. Ideally, if the school has sufficient resources, young children should have the opportunity to be immersed in and learn as many languages as possible. But the situation in many resource-limited “bilingual” programs, where students initially receive little English instruction and are not expected to be able to transition to mainstream classes until four to ten years, is unacceptable. If the school does not have sufficient resources to effectively teach several languages in a reasonable period of time, then they should focus their time and effort on efficiently teaching English, instead of letting students languish in bilingual ed classrooms.
Ultimately, the debate over bilingual education is not pedagogical, but political: competing visions of the common good and the future of our multiethnic society. Many bilingual advocates de-value the importance of rapidly learning English and mainstream classes; they seem to have lost faith in the American assimilation model and prefer institutions which treat and separate people differently by descent-based ethnicity. However, most immigrant parents and many local community leaders remain committed to the goal of full integration and participation in American society for their children. The Unz Initiative (227), which promises to teach English quickly to all children, has tapped into the assimilationist hopes and concerns of both immigrants and native-born citizens in California.
Of course, as noted by the 227 campaign itself, good intentions do not necessarily make good policy outcomes. The initiative process in California, which tends to radical and chaotic policy outcomes, is obviously not the most orderly means to reform bilingual education and transition students to mainstream classes. Ideally, local school districts would have taken the initiative in reforming and capping bilingual education. For example, in Chicago the school board voted to place a strict three-year limit on bilingual education. However, local and state educational professionals have long resisted any reforms or accountability for bilingual education. The proponents of 227 feel that only a radical initiative, with popular support from all ethnic groups, can best dismantle the entrenched bilingual education bureaucracy and promote real meaningful change.