Twisted Tounges: The Failure of Bilingual Education
Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Ed.D.
Som Sak spoke English as well as any 5-year-old growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts. He also spoke the Khmer language of his Cambodian family. When his father took him to school to enroll him in kindergarten, he was given an English test. The child was shy and frightened and would not talk. His father said, "The lady and the man who give the test, they ask the kid, like do something. Pick up the pen on the floor. My son know the answer, but he scared, he not talk. When my kid not answer, they put in bilingual."1
In 1996, 95% of the kindergartners in the Cambodian bilingual classes were born in the U.S. and already spoke English. These children are being taught in Khmer most of the school day, with a half-hour or so of English.
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"My grandson was in bilingual education from kindergarten through fifth grade...He is now in seventh grade and cannot read in either English or Spanish...We were told that because my grandson has a Spanish last name, he should remain in bilingual classes."2
- Ada Jimenez, Bushwick Parents Organization, Brooklyn, New York.
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The Reverend Alice Callaghan, Episcopal Priest, organized an after-school day care center for the children of Mexican immigrant garment workers in East Los Angeles. "What we know is the bilingual system was intended to help children learn another language and maybe it works in some places, but we know our children are not learning to read and write in English...And poor kids don't have the luxury of catching up later on." 3
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What is going on in American schoolrooms? What is happening to the fastest growing portion of the U. S. student populationthe 3.4 million children from immigrant, migrant and refugee families? What educational genius decided that these children should be divided up according to the language spoken in their homes and taught in that language? Are these children being treated in radically different ways from earlier generations of immigrant children and is this form of segregation legal? The answers to the last two questions are "Yes" and "Yes."
Who Are The Children and Where Are They?
The Seattle, Washington, School District, enrolls 6,000 limited-English students from 90 different language backgrounds (mostly from Asian, Pacific Island, and African countries) among its total school population of 45,000 children. Ten years ago, the school district included only a few hundred such students, the children of upper middle class, Japanese and Chinese professional families.
The upscale community of Newton, Massachusetts identified a few dozen Italian-speaking children as "limited-English" twenty years ago (children of immigrant families that did the menial work of the city). Today there are over 500 limited-English students in the tony Newton schools from over 30 different language backgrounds.
Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, has long contained the largest Arabic-speaking population outside of the Middle East. But in recent years, while the language of the immigrant families has not changed, their socio-economic status has. Earlier immigrant families from Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, were well-educated; today the majority are from the Yemen and other less developed Arabian countries and the adults have little or no formal education.
What Is "Bilingual Education" in Plain English?
Transitional Bilingual Education Model
Limited-English speaking children with the same native language must be grouped together in a classroom where they will be taught all subjects in that languagereading, writing, math, science, social studieswith a short, daily English language lesson (45 minutes), in the first year. The ratio of native language teaching to English teaching is 80 percent to 20 percent of the school day.
In the second year, some subjects will be taught in English, some in the native language, moving to a 50-50 ratio of school time.
In the third year, most teaching will be in English, with some language arts still given in the native language, composing an approximate 20-80 ratio favoring English.
My Experiences in the Bilingual Battleground
What's Good About Bilingual Education?
Academic Achievement for Latino Students
Bilingual Education Research - 1968-1998
1978 - American Institutes for Research (AIR) - Spanish-speaking students in bilingual programs have less success in learning English than students receiving no special help at all. These students learn math equally well if they are taught in Spanish and English or English alone.
1981 - Baker - deKanter Report (U.S. Department of Education) - The case for the effectiveness of Transitional Bilingual Education is so weak that exclusive reliance on this instructional method is clearly not justified.
1988 - Dade County, Florida, 3-Year Curriculum Content Project - Limited-English students learned as much subject matter if they were taught in English or if they were taught in Spanishno advantage for native language teaching.
1992 - El Paso, Texas, 10-Year Project - Limited-English students in English immersion classes out-performed children in Spanish bilingual classes in learning English and in learning school subjects.
1992 - California State Study - Results of 20 years of bilingual education: Poor quality of bilingual programs; no evidence that native language teaching is beneficial; students kept in bilingual classes years after they learn English.
1994 - Massachusetts State Study - Results of 23 years of bilingual: No evidence that bilingual programs produce good or bad results; no data evaluating academic performance of limited-English students.
1994 -New York City Study-Limited-English students in English as a Second Language classes exited their special program faster (3 years) and did better in regular classrooms than students taught in their native language (7 years).
1997 - National Research Council Study - on 30 years of bilingual education research: "We do not know whether there will be long-term advantages or disadvantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language versus English."
(Prepared by R. P. Porter, New York University School of Law Symposium, 2/27/97.)
Accountability, Or The Lack Of It
If It Doesn't Work, Then Why Don't We Fix It Or Scrap It?
What Do Latino Parents Really Want?
Latinos-And Others-Take Action!
...Many of these children were born in the United States and attended Head Start programs in English [at ages 3 and 4], but were then placed in bilingual programs when they entered the public school....Many of these students graduate from school having never fully developed their English language skills, and they are therefore unprepared for higher education and employment.
School Districts are Making Radical Changes
California: Test Case for the Nation
It is clear that "appropriate education" does not require "bilingual education." The alleged difference between two sound LEP (Limited-English Proficient) educational theories-ESL (English as a Second Language) and bilingual instruction-is inadequate to demonstrate irreparable harm.
The "English for the Children" Initiative
Recommendations for Programmatic and Legislative Changes
Why It Matters
Bilingual education advocates say it's important to teach a child in his or her family's language. I say you can't use family language in the classroomthe very nature of the classroom requires that you use language publicly. When the Irish nun said to me, `Speak your name loud and clear so that all the boys and girls can hear you,' she was asking me to use language publicly, with strangers. That's the appropriate instruction for a teacher to give.
My grandmother always told me that I was hers, that I was Mexican. That was her role. It was not my teacher's role to tell me I was Mexican. It was my teacher's role to tell me I was American. The notion that you go to a public institution in order to learn private information about yourself is absurd. We used to understand that when students went to universities, they would become cosmopolitan. They were leaving their neighborhoods. Now we have this idea that, not only do you go to first grade to learn your family's language, but you go to a university to learn about the person you were before you left home.
1. Deborah Straszheim, "3,000 Students, $10 Million--Results Unknown," Lowell Sun, 7 April 1996.
2. Rosalie Pedalino Porter, "The Politics of Bilingual Education," Society, September/ October 1996, 36.
3. Amy Pyle, "80 Students Stay Out of School in Latino Boycott," Los Angeles Times, 14 February 1996.
Amselle, J., ed. (1995). The Failure of Bilingual Education. Washington, DC: Center for Equal Opportunity.
Chavez, L. (1995). Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. New York: Basic Books.
Gersten, R., Woodward, J., and Schneider, S. (1992). Bilingual Immersion: A Longitudinal Evaluation of the El Paso Program. Washington, DC: READ Institute.
Krashen, S.D. (1996). Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.
London, S. (August 1997). "Crossing Borders: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez." The Sun, Chapel Hill, NC.
Paulston, C.B. (1982). Swedish Research and Debate About Bilingualism. Stockholm: National Swedish Board of Education.
National Center for Education Statistics (1997). Dropout Rates in the United States: 1995. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
National Research Council, Institute of Medicine. (1997). Improving Schooling for Language- Minority Children: A Research Agenda. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Porter, R.P. (1995). Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education, 2nd Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rebell, M.A. and Murdaugh, A.W. (1992). "National Values and Community Values, Part II: Equal Educational Opportunity for Limited English Proficient Students." 21 Journal of Law & Education 3, 335-390.
Rossell, C. and Baker, K. (1996). "The Educational Effectiveness of Bilingual Education." 30 Research in the Teaching of English 1, 7-74.
___________ (1996). Bilingual Education in Massachusetts: The Emperor Has No Clothes. Boston, MA: The Pioneer Institute.
U.S. Department of Education (February 1998). No More Excuses: The Final Report of the Hispanic Dropout Project. Washington, D.C.
The Communitarian Network
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