To Roberto Feliz, a Boston-area anesthesiologist, the question of whether bilingual education is failing America’s schoolchildren is ridiculous. “In my schooling and learning, bilingual education was the difference between life and death,” he told a congressional panel during a 1993 hearing.
Feliz recounted how he “hit the wall of English” at age 10, when his family moved from the Dominican Republic to Boston. In Santo Domingo, Feliz was a straight-A student whose school nickname of “cerebrito,” or “little brain,” reflected his enthusiasm and accomplishments. All that changed when he was enrolled in a fifth-grade monolingual-English classroom in Boston. “Within no time the excitement that I associated with schooling turned to agonizing frustration. I can’t explain how frustrating it is to know something, and know that you know it, but to be unable to communicate your knowledge in a classroom. Not only was I not learning, but teachers treated me as if I were stupid; they had no way of knowing what I knew. I hated school and would have dropped out if my mother had let me.”
Feliz told lawmakers that, in his second year at Washington Irving School, a woman called Ms. Malave came to his classroom and told him that he was going to be placed in a class in which he could learn both in English and Spanish. “On that day, Ms. Malave seemed like God! And today, Ms. Malave still seems like God, for she gave me a second chance at my education.” Feliz was enrolled in bilingual classes from the sixth grade until the 11th. “In the 11th grade, I found that I was truly ready to make the transition to an English-only program and made the transition successfully.” He entered an honors program for the remainder of high school and won a Presidential Scholarship to Boston University. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer science, Feliz earned a medical degree from Dartmouth University. When he appeared before the House subcommittee, he was completing the last year of a four-year residency in anesthesiology at Beth Israel Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital.
Feliz’s experience with bilingual education is both atypical and typical of the experiences of the 2.5 million to 3.5 million “language-minority” children who speak a language other than English at home and who are deemed by state and local standards to be “limited-English-proficient,” or LEP.
A 1993 Education Department report found that more than 14 percent of U.S. schools with LEP enrollments offered no special instructional services or no services specifically designed for these students, and that another 49 percent provided only monolingual English instructional services to their LEP students. More than half of the LEP students were not able to use their language and the knowledge encoded therein, as Feliz put it, to move forward in their studies.
Feliz’s six-year enrollment in bilingual education also was highly atypical. The mean tenure of LEP students in bilingual education is less than three-and-a-half years, too short a period to ensure mastery of what linguists call “cognitive academic language proficiency” – the ability to learn academic content exclusively in English as well as native-English speakers. Researchers agree that it takes five to seven years for the average LEP child to meet this practical and vital measure of English proficiency. Feliz’s luck in having bilingual teachers who were proficient both in English and his native language also was atypical. In 1993, nearly one of every six U.S. teachers – more than 360,000 – was teaching LEP students in grades K-12. Less than half, or 42 percent, spoke the native language of their students.
Feliz’s educational accomplishments, however, are typical of those LEP students who are fortunate enough to receive a substantial amount of their instruction, for a substantial period of time, through both English and their native language. Research shows that LEP students who are provided with quality bilingual education excel in their mastery of English and other subjects. At the same time, these students develop proficiency in a second language, an important resource for the nation’s security and economic future.
Sixth-graders at the public Oyster Elementary School in Washington annually score at the 12th-grade level in English-language arts and at the 10th- and 11th-grade levels in math and science on nationally normed standardized achievement tests. At Oyster, all students (both native English speakers and native Spanish speakers) are taught half the time in English and half the time in Spanish in a “two-way” bilingual-education program from kindergarten through sixth grade. The fact that Feliz completed high school and went on to college also is typical of students who have received substantial bilingual education. School officials in the Calexico Unified School District, located on the U.S.-Mexico border in California, cite the availability of bilingual education as the most essential factor responsible for the district’s low dropout rate and high rate of college admission. Fully 98 percent of Calexico students are Hispanic; 80 percent are LEP; and 30 percent are the children of migrant farmworkers. Average family income in Calexico, where unemployment runs between 25 and 35 percent, is less than $12,000 annually. Calexico’s dropout rate of 11 to 15 percent is half the California state average for Hispanic students. In 1993, 93 percent of the district’s graduating seniors were accepted by a junior college or four-year college or university. Large-scale national studies conducted and reviewed by the nation’s top educational researchers confirm the success of bilingual education that makes significant use of a LEP student’s native language for a substantial period of time. Both the General Accounting Office and the prestigious National Academy of Sciences have reviewed research on the effectiveness of bilingual education to answer the question of whether it is helping or harming LEP schoolchildren. Their essential findings on native-language instruction were the same:
* It does not impede and actually seems to facilitate student acquisition of English;
* It permits LEP students to make continuous and timely progress in subject-matter learning, thereby reducing the rate of student grade retention and the likelihood that students will drop out of school; and
* It results in a much higher level of parent involvement in schooling.
If bilingual education is helping America’s schoolchildren, why all the political fuss? There are two primary reasons. First, as with all other school programs – whether math education, science education, vocational education or special education – there are some bilingual-education programs that are not working well. Some are bilingual in name only, staffed by monolingual English-speaking teachers with no professional preparation in the instruction of LEP students. In a few instances, students have been assigned to bilingual education on the basis of an educationally irrelevant criterion such as surname, a practice condemned by the National Association for Bilingual Education, or NABE. In some localities, LEP students have been assigned to bilingual-education programs without the informed consent and choice of their parents, another practice condemned by NABE and contrary to law in federally funded programs. Yet the fact that some bilingual-education programs need improvement and reform does not warrant the elimination of native-language instruction any more than the elimination of math education, science education, vocational education or any educational program that appears to be failing some students.
A second reason bilingual education remains controversial is that a small cadre of individuals have a compelling interest in keeping it so. They have built their careers and organizations around the political cause of opposition to bilingual education.
Linda Chavez parlayed her Hispanic surname and strident criticism of bilingual education into an appointment by President Reagan to be staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She later moved on to serve as president of U.S. English, a multimillion-dollar lobby founded in 1983 to oppose bilingual education and promote governmental restrictions on the use of non-English languages. Although Chavez resigned from U.S. English following press coverage of the racist views of the organization’s founders and funders, she started her own organization, the Center for Equal Opportunity, to bash native-language instruction.
Chavez is aided by Larry Pratt, founder of English First, another Washington lobbying group set up exclusively to promote an English-only agenda. Pratt, who also founded and heads the lobbying organization Gun Owners of America, was the adviser to former presidential contender Pat Buchanan who resigned from the campaign after the press reported his numerous contacts with racist and extremist groups.
U.S. English funded the establishment of two “satellite” antibilingual education organizations. The first, Learning English Advocates Drive, or LEAD, was started in 1987 by a Los Angeles elementary-school teacher, Sally Peterson, who claims that “native-language-based bilingual education is a human tragedy of national proportions.” Peterson teaches her LEP students exclusively in English; she is assisted by a paid bilingual paraprofessional who is able to communicate with the LEP students and their families. When Peterson was asked by the press last year for information on her organization, she declined to reveal its budget, sources of funding or even the size of its membership. A second organization subsidized by U.S. English is Research in English Acquisition and Development, or READ, founded by Keith Baker, a former Education Department researcher who made a career out of attacking bilingual education. Baker’s research and claims against bilingual education were reviewed by a special panel of the American Psychological Association which found them professionally substandard and invalid.
The fact that virtually every national “mainstream” education organization in the United States, including the National PTA, the National School Boards Association, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, supports bilingual education has not quieted criticism of bilingual instruction. That’s understandable: The money from the nativist political lobbies keeps the voices of critics loud, but not loud enough to drown out the growing number of success stories such as that told by Roberto Feliz.
Lyons is executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, an organization founded to improve the education of American language-minority students.