When Schools Won't Teach English

Against convincing evidence, California politicians have allowed a generation of children to get a second-rate education. Now parents can change that.

MARIA ELENA Hernandez is an unlikely crusader. She’s a single mother who works in the Los Angeles garment district and speaks almost no English, but she wanted her six-year-old daughter, Ashley, taught in English. “We live in a country where it is the primary language,” she told Reader’s Digest in Spanish. “It is what she needs to communicate everywhere she goes.” To that end, Hernandez joined with other Spanish-speaking parents in a David-versus-Goliath boycott against the Ninth Street Elementary School.

The school had enrolled Ashley in its bilingual program. Theoretically, students were supposed to learn English even as they were taught the three R’s in Spanish. But in practice, students in the lower grades received, at most, an hour a day of English instruction. The majority of students stayed in Spanish-language classes for five or six years and, not surprisingly, were still struggling to learn English.

In May 1995 when Hernandez and other Latino parents first sought to have their children transferred to the English Language Development Program, as was their right under California law, Ninth Street administrators refused, claiming it was too late in the year. For months parents kept after school-district officials, with little result. In February 1996 the parents decided to boycott the school.

An ally in their struggles was Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center in the garment district that many of the children attended after school. Callaghan contends that children who stay in Spanish-language instruction until fifth grade “can’t read or write English anywhere near their grade level. Then in high school, when they take the SAT, most score far too low on the verbal portion for most four-year colleges. They never have access to higher education.”

The boycott lasted nine days, ending when school officials assured the parents that their children would be enrolled in English-language classes. And that would have been the end if not for Ron Unz.

For the Children

Unz, who had made millions developing financial software in Silicon Valley, remembered family stories about how his mother entered kindergarten in an L.A. public school speaking only Yiddish. She was taught in English from the start and graduated with honors from college. So the more Unz learned about the state’s bilingual-education program, the more he was convinced that it was denying children the education they need. What’s more, Unz was shocked to discover that the state was spending at least $300 million a year to defray the cost of educating limited-English-proficient (LEP) students—and only a small percentage of them were learning English.

The parents’ grass-roots revolt inspired Unz to finance a petition drive that proposed an initiative—English for the Children—which will be on the California ballot this June. Honorary chairman of the drive is Bolivian-born Jaime Escalante, whose success in teaching calculus to Latino students was featured in the movie Stand and Deliver.

If Proposition 227 passes, Hispanic parents statewide will not have to make a special request that their children be educated in the nation’s common language. All public-school instruction will be conducted primarily in English. Exceptions will be made for non-English-speaking students, who will be limited to one year of “sheltered immersion” with teachers leading them quickly into English. The students will then move into English-language classes.

If the English for the Children initiative passes, it will likely fuel similar campaigns elsewhere and have enormous significance. Two-thirds of America’s 28 million Hispanics live outside California, as do more than half of the 3.2 million students classified as not proficient in English.

The Point

How did bilingual education come to be so often an impediment rather than an aid to children? Like many government programs, it was started with the best of intentions. U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough (D., Texas), a leading sponsor of the first federal bilingual-education legislation, explained the goal was “just to try to make those [non-English-speaking] children fully literate in English.” But court decisions, state implementation and politics transformed it in practice.

California enacted legislation requiring native-language instruction for non-English-speaking students. In practice, however, it was not followed for every ethnic group. Few teachers fluent in certain Asian languages, for example, could be found, so those students moved fairly rapidly into English.

But school districts did hire thousands of Spanish-speaking teachers, including many without standard teaching credentials, and paid them a premium. Thus hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking youngsters were held back from learning English.

That state law expired in 1987. But until a policy change last March, the state board of education had exerted strong pressure for native-language instruction. And few school districts sought permission to change their programs.

Supporters of bilingual education insist the research shows that it works well. They claim that children have an easier time learning new languages when they are older. Opponents argue that giving children early exposure to a new language results in greater proficiency in the long run.

Boston University professor Christine Rossell and Keith Baker, formerly with the U.S. Department of Education’s program evaluation office, analyzed academic studies of children taught in their native language. Their conclusion: that this transitional bilingual education hurts and almost never helps children learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Little wonder that the National Council of La Raza, a broad-based Hispanic group that supports bilingual education, declared in 1997, “On the whole, public education has not been very effective for Hispanics.”

While it is clear that bilingual education has played a part in limiting educational, career and economic opportunities for thousands of California youngsters, this does not seem to bother some teachers and administrators. For example, when Ninth Street School parents protested that the reading scores of their children were in the bottom ten percent of the state, they said that administrators and teachers explained: “The tests are in English.”

Replied the parents: “That’s the point.”

The fact is that Latino students are ready and eager to learn English. All anyone needs for proof is to visit the children at Alice Callaghan’s Las Familias del Pueblo community center more than two years after the boycott. First-grader Jaime speaks lively English. “He has wanted to speak English from the time he entered kindergarten,” Callaghan says.

So did seven-year-old Rosie. “I didn’t know any English when I was little,” she says. “Now I can’t remember what it was like not knowing English.”

The Bottom Line

In a statewide poll taken in February, almost half of Latinos surveyed favored the California initiative, indicating they wanted students taught in English, not in bilingual programs. When the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D. C., think tank, polled Hispanic parents throughout the country, fully 81 percent wanted academic courses taught in English rather than Spanish.

With so many Latino parents strongly favoring instruction in English, Unz is on solid ground when he says the English for the Children initiative is not “anti-immigrant.” Nor is this a partisan cause, he argues. “Some issues are liberal versus conservative,” he says. “Some are Democrat versus Republican. This issue is basic common sense.”

He points out that the politicians have failed to pass bilingual-education reform for more than a decade. And the question he poses is: how many more years must children wait for them to act?

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