Heather Mac Donald on "The Bilingual Ban that Worked"
December 10, 2009, 09:49 PM
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Heather Mac Donald`s article in City Journal details the success of Ron Unz`s 1998 Proposition 227 in California that largely replaced bilingual education with English immersion:
"And the transformation in the classroom has to be seen to be believed. It is extraordinary, for example, to observe elementary school teachers in Santa Ana, once a bastion of bilingual education, talking to their young Hispanic students exclusively in English about the Great Wall of China. It is just as extraordinary to see those students eagerly raising their hands to read English workbooks aloud in class. The main sign that the students are not native English speakers is an occasional reminder about past-tense formation or the pronunciation of word endings, but plenty of English-only speakers in the state need such assistance, too. Schools are not universally following the time frame set out in Prop. 227: a year of separate instruction in English followed by integration with English-only students. In some schools, English learners remain cloistered for a longer period. But regardless of classroom composition, English learners are being taught �overwhelmingly in English,� which is the most important goal of 227.

Self-esteem seems fine. �I didn’t know how to speak English in first grade,� says a husky fourth-grade boy at Adams Elementary School in Santa Ana. �I just figured out at the end of the year and talked all English.� The boy’s classmates, who are sitting next to him at a picnic table under a pepper tree for lunch, jostle to get in on the interview. They are fluent in schoolyard insults. �He’s a special ed!� one boy says of another. �I am not a special ed, you liar!� retorts the target. The fifth-grade girls at a table nearby complain that the boys are lazy. A slender girl has recently arrived from Mexico. Her translator for that day, a tiny blue-eyed girl named Lily, drapes her arm lovingly around the new immigrant and will sit next to her in all their classes, explaining what the teacher is saying. The pair and their fellow pupils amble back into the school after lunch, any signs of psychological distress well concealed. No one reports unhappiness at speaking English in class; on the contrary, they brag that it’s easy."

Hispanic kids want to learn how to speak English. English is currently a much cooler language than Spanish in terms of pop culture. And their parents know their kids can make more money as adults if they speak English. Little kids are language sponges, so once public institutions swung behind promoting English, the kids hopped right on board.

Unz`s initiative is a rare example in modern American life of a public policy problem being solved. Not surprisingly, it has therefore disappeared down the memory hole. There are no Ken Burns documentaries on PBS to celebrate his accomplishment.

Heather considers at some length the murky methodological issues of measuring the impact of this profound change on scores on written tests. One problem is that there are now a lot of kids in California schools who speak English fluently, but who can`t get reclassified that they have learned English because they can`t pass the written test of English fluency. Why not? Because these kids who speak English but can`t pass a test of written English can`t pass any written tests, including math tests. They`re not very bright.

But, at least the schools taught them how to speak English, which they were actively avoiding doing, at considerable incremental expense, before Prop. 227.