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I have included an article I wrote to give some insight to my many friends did not really understand what "bilingual education" is.


By Hal Netkin

I first became interested in Mexican Culture and the Spanish language when I rented the front part of my home to a Mexican family in 1989. The youngest of the five children at the time was Ulises, then in the second grade at Valerio Elementary School in Van Nuys (it was then that I first met my wife Ines when she was hired by the family as the nanny for Ulises). I learned that Ulises was branded by his school as a slow learner. Besides his regular bilingual class, he received special tutoring for slow learners. This puzzled me because the child appeared normal to me--even above normal at times. What's more, he spoke English better than he did Spanish. I became very close to the family and became a mentor to Ulises. Since both parents worked at outside jobs and I worked out of our home, I agreed to be listed with the school as Ulises' guardian. I was contacted in emergency situations and when teacher/parent communications were necessary.

One day before the semester ended, I received a call from the school's Bilingual Coordinator--a teacher specially assigned to sign up children for bilingual classes. She told me that Ulises was not ready for transition to English and wanted my approval of Ulises to continue in the next grade in a bilingual class. I told the coordinator that I believed that Ulises' English was better than his Spanish, but the coordinator insisted he would do better in the bilingual class. To settle the matter, I was invited to observe the bilingual class to see for myself how beneficial it was supposed to be.

I spent a half day in the class. Here's how it worked: The "English proficient" children sat on the left side of the class as a group, while the "native Spanish speaking" children sat as a group on the right side. The children on the left side were a combination of Anglos, Asians, Armenians, and other non Latinos. The group of children on the right were all Latinos. If I didn't know what was going on, I would have thought that our schools reverted back to the days of southern segregation. An English speaking teacher stood in front of the left group, while a Spanish speaking teaching assistant stood in front of the right group. The left group read from books in English while the right group read from books in Spanish. As the primary teacher instructed in English, the assistant translated to Spanish. At times, the groups were instructed separately. I couldn't understand how the coordinator would think that I would be impressed--to me, this was outrageous. Why don't Armenian, Vietnamese, Haitian, Chinese and all other children whose "native" language is not English, need bilingual education--the message being sent to the Latino children is clear: they are being made to feel that they are inferior in intelligence as compared to other ethnic groups. Of course I did not give my approval for bilingual education for Ulises--he went on to become an average student without bilingual education.

I have been told by teachers that even if the bilingual student does not appear to be gaining in the learning of English, they are gaining in self esteem which will give the student the confidence needed later to catch up. This is absurd! The student may be gaining self esteem just as a gang member gains self esteem when his gang peers praise the graffiti he defaced someone's property with--but that does not mean the student will test well in English skills. The student's self-esteem should be gained when the student shows accomplishments in English proficiency.

Without explaining exactly why, LAUSD Superintendent Sid Thompson says that poverty is a big contributing factor to Latinos academic deficiency. How does he explain the academic achievements of other ethnic groups who have experienced even harsher conditions--children of Vietnamese boat people who arrived with nothing and with big families show academic achievements even better than middle class American born children. Could it be that non-English speaking Vietnamese parents stress the importance of mastering English to their children?

Unknown to most lay people, bilingual education is not bilingual at all. "Bilingual education" is a misnomer. More accurately, it should be called "primary language" education. The theory is that if at first, students are taught all subjects in their native language, they will phase into and learn English better and faster in the long run. In the LAUSD, the focus of bilingual education is on Latinos--we are really talking about Spanish speaking children. The Latino students spend two to four years learning in Spanish as if they were in their native country with only 30 to 60 minutes per day of English instruction.

The advocates of bilingual education insist that the students will learn English better if they first master their native Spanish. The idea might be acceptable if the student already had training in the Spanish language, but how much vocabulary can a five year old have in any language--the young child has only a superficial knowledge of Spanish anyway which has been imparted by parents, many who are not fully educated. Ultimately, the child will end up not speaking either language very well (Spanglish).

I have personal experience. My parents immigrated from Poland in the thirties. My siblings and I all spoke only Yiddish at home. Our neighborhood in Brooklyn N.Y. was a Yiddish enclave--Yiddish spoken in the streets, a Yiddish newspaper, the Yiddish cinema, and almost all store signs written in Yiddish. Apart from a few words we picked up on the street, we did not speak English. Upon entering elementary school, I do not recall any trauma in the transition to English. Within months, the Yiddish speaking children were speaking English. In my home, my parents ultimately learned English from us.

As with most ethnic groups, my parents wanted us not to forget Yiddish, to carry on Jewish culture, and not forget our Jewish heritage--but they did not expect the government to accommodate their wishes. When the public school day was over, I attended a private Yiddish school which my parents, although poor, personally paid for.

Most parents of Spanish speaking children do not have an understanding of bilingual education. The "bi" leads parents to believe their children are learning English and Spanish at the same time. When most Latino parents are made aware of what bilingual education really is, they are opposed to it (two years ago, nearly all the Latino parents of the students that attend 9th Street Grammar School, pulled their children out to boycott bilingual education).

Bilingual education should not be confused with ESL (English as a second language). ESL is taught to mixed language students ie: the class may have students whose native languages are Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, French, etc., who all learn English together. It surprises many people to find out that ESL teachers are not required to be bilingual. That is because ESL is not taught by translation. My wife Ines who immigrated from Mexico in 1989, could not speak English. After two years of adult night school ESL, she became fluent. I have asked ESL teachers why, if ESL is so successful with adults, they did not use that approach with children. I am at a loss when the majority of ESL teachers stand behind the "bilingual" dogma when it comes to children.

So what do the results of 20 years of bilingual education show? Latino students have consistently scored the lowest of any ethnic group in SAT tests and have the highest drop out rate (40%). Last year, the Daily News reported the National Merit Scholarship winners from the San Fernando valley--these are students who were rewarded with $2,000 scholarships and had shown exceptional academic ability and a strong potential for success in college. From the San Fernando valley which is demographically dense with Latino Students, there were no Hispanic names listed among the 30 contestants.

LAUSD says that, research indicates students who master their first language of Spanish, and then make a transition to English, in the long run do as well or better academically than most of their English-only counterparts. In no way does research indicate this! Without hard data, the LAUSD is reiterating the claims of a couple of USC linguists, Jim Cummins and Steve Krashen, who have tied their careers to the Los Angeles Unified School District's $130 million bilingual research grants.

What research does show is that in the 20 years of bilingual education in California, transition to English has dropped. California's Department of Education shows that while the number of students in bilingual programs more than doubled from 1983 to 1993, the number making it into English dropped 5 percent. And the district's CTBS (Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills) scores show that fourth-graders who redesignate, are hopelessly unable to perform in English.


CLASSROOMS ARE TOO CROWDED: Classes are generally overcrowded which may lower test scores for all students, but empirical evidence indicates that students taught with the bilingual method are put at even a greater disadvantage.

DISCONTINUITY: Los Angeles School superintendent Sid Thompson said in April, 1997, that part of the problem is caused by kids who go back and forth to Mexico.

When I was in high school, students and their parents knew that lengthy sabbaticals would cause the student to be set back a grade or more--LAUSD does not flunk children--they simply pass them as if no school were missed at all.

SHORTAGE OF BILINGUAL TEACHERS: This excuse is a good one. When the educators are forced to recognize the failure of bilingual education, they say that the program would work if they did not have a shortage of quality bilingual teachers--a tailer-made conjectural excuse that the educators will use when they run out of other excuses.

To me, the issue is not complicated: When children are taught school in a foreign language, most will simply never become proficient in English. I suspect that those few who do eventually become proficient in English, are exceptions and probably would have become proficient anyway. There is not a shred of evidence to support bilingual education--on the contrary, evidence over the last 20 years indicates that bilingual education has failed--in fact, evidence suggests that bilingual education is a major cause of academic failure by Latino children. It can only be concluded with such discouraging results, that the educators are not concerned with Latino children. In spite of the obvious failure, the educators keep insisting that bilingual education is beneficial as if it were a proven success.

So how do the educators explain poor academic achievement among Latino students? Ironically, they say it is because there are too many students who have limited English proficiency--contradicting what they have been saying about the benefits of bilingual education. So why do the educators continue to support bilingual education? I believe there are a number reasons. To name a few:

1.POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: Past mistreatment by the U.S. of minority groups have instilled in the guilt ridden Board of Education, a desire to "make it up" to Latinos. They do this by patronizing Latino leaders who favor bilingual education for what I believe are political reasons and are not really interested in the promotion of English proficiency among Latinos..

2. MEXICAN NATIONALISM AND CULTURAL BRAINWASHING: My wife Ines has told me that in Mexico, students are taught in school at a young age that the U.S. has stolen what is now the U.S. Southwest from them. Organizations such as La Raza, Maldef, Mecha, Lulac, and many more, have their constituents convinced that the U.S. owes them their culture. Recently (week of 04/13/97), The Orange County Register reported that the City of Orange had just scrapped bilingual education. Reflecting the sentiments of many Latinos, Sonia Reyes, an Orange mother with two children in bilingual classes, said in Spanish, "I think it's a racist action against the Latino community, they're trying to get rid of the Spanish language, which is our culture."

Short or telling Mrs. Reyes that Orange did not owe her children a Spanish education, the board members argued that they were only seeking to give the students a better education. "I feel that if we were to continue bilingual education in this district, we'd be doing them a disservice and a grave injustice by not allowing them to become fluent in English early," said board member Rick Ladesma. The proposal goes to state education officials. If approved, Orange would be the largest district to win an exemption from a state requirement to teach students with limited English in their native language.

3. MONEY: The amount of money designated for bilingual education depends on how many students are enrolled in the program. This gives incentive to educators to perpetuate bilingual education. Bilingual education in California is about a $1 billion/year industry. The industry employs thousands of Spanish speaking teachers. Not being able to meet the demand, some teachers are recruited from Mexico to work in American schools.

In conclusion: I am not suggesting that the elimination of bilingual education will be the cure-all. Many other problems must be solved--but I am convinced that if and when the LAUSD scraps bilingual education, academic performance of Latino children will start to normalize.