Once again, Donald Trump has stumbled upon an issue that is generating controversy and that is ripe for review. His criticism of Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish while in the U.S. is of course absurd; speaking a second language is broadening and can be valuable in all kinds of professions. Speaking a second language in the U.S. is perfectly acceptable. What is not acceptable is allowing children to pass through our school system and emerge functionally illiterate in English. Nothing condemns people to second-class status faster in our country – or alienates them culturally -- than not being able to speak our common language.
This truth led to widespread abandonment of bilingual education in the 1960s. Only four states today still require the approach; Texas, New York, Illinois and New Jersey. However, some are pressing for the return of the bilingual system, which allows children to master subjects like math and history in their native tongue while being taught English separately. California, where bilingual teaching was barred in 1998, has 2.7 million students (43 percent of total enrollment) whose families speak a language other than English in the home.
Some 23 percent are so-called “English learners” who require help with English. At the urging of activists and teachers groups, the California Multilingual Education Act was signed last year by Governor Brown, heralding a possible turnaround in that state’s approach. On the November 2016 ballot, voters will choose whether parents can again request bilingual education for their children.
In an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Chair of a group called ProEnglish, argues against the proposal, which overturns a referendum passed in 1998 (Proposition 227). A referendum, she points out that carried with 61 percent voter support and at the instigation of Mexican-born parents in Los Angeles incensed that their children were not learning English quickly enough.
The results, according to Ms. Porter, are clear. In a bilingual system, children do not learn English as quickly. Moreover, they are segregated from the rest of the student body for much of the school day, which further impedes their progress. She advocates instead English immersion programs, in which children get special instruction in English, but also are immediately entered into English-only classes. It’s sink or swim, but most children apparently learn to dog paddle within a couple of years. She cites Massachusetts and Arizona, in addition to California, as test cases where the benefits of this approach have been verified.
A landmark study conducted in 1996 by Christine Rossell at Boston University, which was based on evaluations of 300 programs in the U.S. and Canada, concluded the following:
“Transitional bilingual education (TBE) is better than regular classroom instruction in only 22 percent of the of the methodologically acceptable studies when the outcome is reading, 7 percent when the outcome is language, and 9 percent when the outcome is math. TBE is never better than structured immersion…. Thus, the research evidence does not support TBE as a superior form of instruction for limited English proficient children.”
Ron Unz, an architect of Prop 227, told an interviewer for the Los Angeles Times, "The proposal [SB1174] is totally ridiculous…. The academic performance of over a million immigrant students roughly doubled in the four years following the passage of Proposition 227." He added that he has been “very pleased with the results” of 227, and that shortly after it passed, “the founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators publicly admitted he’d been wrong for 30 years.”
That change of heart brings to mind a similar about face by the late Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rico-born Congressman. Badillo was a great champion of bilingual education – a sponsor of the federal 1968 Bilingual Education Act -- until he began to see his Spanish-speaking constituents were failing to learn English in school and not much more at all. The original idea, he said in an interview with NPR, was that children would be on the bilingual track for one or two years, until they acquired English skills necessary to join regular classes. Instead, he said, the bilingual approach “goes on for four years, six years, eight years, and instead of helping the kids move into the normal educational system, they go off on a tangent where they don’t learn either English or Spanish.”
Mr. Badillo, a lifelong advocate for Hispanic causes, was dismayed that “we have in the Latino community Latinos who have been here three and four generations, and they’re not learning to speak English, and they are maintaining themselves segregated, and they are not getting an education.” Sounding a little like Donald Trump, Badillo insisted that Hispanics would only be able to get ahead the old-fashioned way, as others have that came before. “You come in and you learn to speak the language and you become assimilated, and become part of this society.”
He wrote a book about the failings of bilingual education, which earned him scorn from liberal advocates. The New York Times, for instance, refused to review One Nation, One Standard.
Not only Hispanics are invested in this decision. In California, children speak over 60 different languages. Of course, a very high percentage speaks Spanish, but among the most popular languages are Vietnamese, Filipino, Arabic and Punjabi. Those groups, too, might demand specialized native-tongue instruction. Such programs would put an enormous cost burden on California’s already stressed school system. Also, it is hard to imagine that there would be consistent quality among instructors; hiring a Russian geometry teacher would be an accomplishment, regardless of competence.
Advocates whine about maintaining “cultural identity”-- in reality, immigrant groups have maintained their cultures through families, churches and traditions, while also assimilating. Presumably immigrants come to this country to become part of it. They should be encouraged to do just that, and their children will thrive.