A new flurry of English-only initiatives asks the same old questions.
The elimination of bilingual education in California in 1998 and in Arizona in 2000 through the initiative process has sparked interest in similar measures in other states. New York, Texas, Colorado, and Massachusetts are considering following suit, encouraged by the "success" of the immersion approach. In both California and Arizona, voters approved anti-bilingual-education measures by 2-to-1 margins. Unfortunately, many voters' choices were based on a superficial understanding that "immersion" means English and "bilingual education" means Spanish. English won.
Many voters feel that English is the language of the land and bilingual education encourages a Canada-style friction between linguistic groups. Fear of bilingualism also is fueled by the fact that many U.S. companies prefer bilingual employees. People don't want to have to learn a new language to get a job. In more than 20 states, that fear has found expression in laws declaring English the official language.
Other voters dislike bilingual education because it does not seem to have produced "results." Hispanics still don't perform as well as Anglos in educational achievement as measured by standardized tests. Bilingual education, voters assume, must be to blame.
The mainstream media fuel this belief. Last year a number of newspapers circulated an article from The New York Times stating that an immersion program in Oceanside, California, worked wonders. Test scores of Hispanic students went up considerably. The article made for great headlines. What it failed to reveal was that scores went up for all Californian children, including those in schools that retained some form of bilingual education.
Many people believe that bilingual education focuses on language, when in fact it teaches all subjects, including English. From a work-force perspective, just knowing the English language doesn't do much for one's employment prospects. The superiority of English seems paramount in the voters' minds.
When bilingual education is implemented properly, it works. Research by George Mason University and the National Research Council confirms this. A study by the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrated that students in bilingual education programs did better in reading and writing than those who were taught in English from the beginning.
Certainly, the "sink or swim" approach never worked for many people. In the past, "sink or swim" thinking meant that immigrant children often were classified as unintelligent because they could not compete with native-born students. In 1921, half of the special-education students in New York City were Italian immigrants. Why? They were tested in English, a language they did not know very well. Their low scores branded them as less intelligent.
Bilingual education tries to correct the shortcomings of the "sink or swim" approach by developing the intelligence of immigrant kids. Unfortunately, voters are reluctant to give it a chance. Even at the height of its implementation in California, only 30 percent of the children who needed bilingual education got it. And those who were involved in it often had teachers who were not bilingual, because there was always a huge shortage of qualified personnel.
Hispanics' lack of success in school cannot be attributed to bilingual education. The most obvious culprit is simple economics. Hispanics, for the most part, like other immigrant groups before them, have lower per capita income than the national average. Funding for schools is primarily a local matter linked to local taxes. The wealthier the neighborhood, the higher the school's budget. And for those areas of the country where school funding is primarily a state matter, rich neighborhoods still get more money than poor ones.
In short, lower income and a lack of language skills conspire against Hispanic and other immigrant children. These challenges require compensatory education, and bilingual education – though not a panacea – tries to level the playing field.
The anti-bilingual-education proposals have had and will continue to have negative effects on the education of Hispanics. Anti-bilingual-education propositions and English-only laws do not benefit anyone, particularly Hispanic children. Ironically, these propositions inspire Hispanic parents to become U.S. citizens at a fast rate and engage in the political process. As a result, Hispanics have realized that they are a political force when it comes to defending their children.
Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California
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