View from Lodi, CA: "Bilingual Education" Surviving — With Help From Bush
October 25, 2002, 05:00 AM
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Assistant Secretary of Education Susan Neuman came to town this week to spend two hours at the Lodi Unified School District's Clairmont School in north Stockton.

As a Lodi Adult School instructor, I've taught a section of English as a second language at Clairmont for more than 10 years. I was happy to see the hard-working, devoted Clairmont teachers and staff get their long overdue credit. That the kudos came from the highest possible source, the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. made the moment more memorable.

I hope Dr. Neuman noticed that the multi-ethnic enrollment at Clairmont—more than twenty native languages and dialects spoken among the K-6 population—was functioning just fine in English. Clairmont has never offered bilingual education to its students, though teachers at the school are certificated in English Language Development.

Neuman's boss, Secretary of Education Rod Paige opposes ballot proposals in Colorado and Massachusetts to end bilingual education. Paige feels, despite the obvious success of English immersion instruction, that the decision on the relative amounts of English and native language instruction should be made at the "point of instruction."

In other words, teachers, when given parental consent, will decide how much English instruction a child gets and when he gets it.

Paige echoes George W. Bush's sentiments about bilingual education. For Bush, "No Child Left Behind" should include bilingual instruction.

You'd expect that, when improved test scores argue so convincingly for ending bilingual education, the resistance would gradually fade away. Instead, the controversy rages on.

At least one expert who favors ending bilingual education, Dr. Rosalie Pedalino Porter, thinks that the conflict comes from not understanding what an English immersion class is.

In an article published in the Winter 2002 ProEnglish Advocate newsletter (www.proenglish.org) Porter explains that immersion classes are not sink or swim. Instead, such programs require highly trained teachers, a special curriculum and textbooks and classrooms made up exclusively of English-language learners.

And, putting to rest another claim made by bilingual education advocates, Porter noted in a Atlantic Monthly article that neither self-esteem is higher nor stress lower among bilingual students.

The crucial aspect of immersion classes is that students learn English from day one. Basic survival vocabulary—name, address and telephone number—is the first thing mastered. Shortly after that, emphasis shifts to conversational fundamentals.

In my adult classes, after experimenting with various combinations of English and Spanish, I have found that when I stress English-only from the beginning of the class, the results are dramatically better.

But while bilingual education officially died in California when Proposition 227 passed in 1998, it may slowly be making a comeback.

If parents are willing to sign a waiver, their child can be educated in bilingual classes. In areas like Santa Ana—92% Hispanic—many chose bilingual because no English is spoken at home. Parents feel they cannot help their children with homework if the classes are in English.

And in Sacramento, the State Board of Education—made up mostly of Governor Gray Davis appointees—is considering giving the final decision on where non-English speaking students are placed back to the bilingual education industry.

Said bilingual education advocate Mary Hernandez, "The board's intention is to let the school chose rather than the parent." This is in direct violation of Proposition 227 and its success. Since Proposition 227, elementary school scores increased 46% in reading and 57% in math across all grade levels.

But Davis is rumored to be indebted to the bilingual education crowd for its political support and is considering letting it have its way.

Personally, I can't get past the irony of bilingual education. 

People voluntarily choose to come to the U.S. - but then demand that taxpayers fund an educational program to teach their children in their native language.

Pardon me?

What happened to the common language that unites all Americans? My grandparents, father, mother, aunts and uncles could speak Italian. But they never did. They spoke English to us and among themselves. And they were proud to speak English.

As far as whether bilingual education is good for kids or not, the often-repeated truth heard from teachers and administrators is that students learn English faster when they learn it from the first day.

To be productive and successful in America, English is the key.

Why delay the first step toward success?

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.