Los Angeles Herald Examiner (March 4, 1988)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (March 4, 1988)

Title – “Teachers without eyes”

After reading last summer that the United Teachers of Los Angeles had voted overwhelmingly to adopt the immersion method to teach English to the limited-English speaking, my first reaction was to write the union off as brain dead. Then I decided that maybe the teachers should move elsewhere, since the reality of the Southwest was so unpalatable to them. Finally, I become irritated. Compelling immigrant students to sink or swim in a sea of English has never worked. The history of Latinos in the United Sates attests to that.

It would have been easier to dismiss the UTLA vote as a curiosity if it were not for the fact that the union’s voice is one of a chorus of complaints about bilingual education. The California law requiring bilingual programs has been dead for nearly nine months, and reviving the law this year will be difficult. Although many school districts continue to offer the programs, others have moved to scale down their help for the limited-English speaking. The Los Angeles school board, fortunately, in all likelihood will reaffirm its support for a new master plan on bilingual education soon.

Sadly, the assault on bilingual education signifies a nativist reaction to the arrival of large numbers of Latinos and Asians during the past two decades. Most UTLA members have apparently forgotten that they are the descendants of illegals who, by force of arms, seized more than 50 percent of Mexico’s territory. As a result, the natural northward immigration of Mexicans and Central Americans was cut off.

According to its critics, notably Secretary of Education William Bennett, bilingual education is chiefly to blame for the 50 percent drop-out rate among Latino students. Others have charged that it retards the assimilation of foreign-born students into mainstream “America” and that the quality of bilingual programs which are mostly run by teacher aides, is below standard.

These arguments are smokescreens for teachers who neglect the needs of the majority of their students and who refuse to learn a foreign language or acquire knowledge about the cultures of their pupils. No wonder American education is in a quality tailspin.

Blaming bilingual education for the Latino drop-out problem is outright nonsense. In 1950, Latino students aver(***cut off section***) 12 for Anglos. In the 1960s, when Los Angeles Latino students comprised 20 percent of the school-district population (it is now 58 percent), the drop-out rate exceeded 50 percent. In 1968, conditions were so deplorable that 20,000 Latinos in school had reached only 9.7 years. All this occurred under the auspices of the immersion program!

Teachers are not solely responsible for this failure. Demographer Donald J. Bogue, in “The Population of the United States: Historical Trends and Future Projections,” concludes that school enrollment and achievement are more strongly tied to family income than to culture. Yet UTLA members and politicians opposed to bilingual education apparently prefer the fantasyland in which the answer to Latino students’ problems is a big push onto the English-only gauntlet.

The argument that bilingual education hinders Latino assimilation into the American mainstream is equally obtuse. Blacks speak English, yet are locked up on the fringes of society. Truth be told, racist attitudes and class consciousness still play roles in shaping educators’ perceptions of Latino students, thus impairing the assimilation process. Integration is a social problem that existed long before bilingual education became reality.

The attack on the quality of bilingual education programs is also wrongly headed. Frankly, they are a notch above the quality of public education in general. A recent study, “On Course: Bilingual Education’s Success in California,” by USC linguist Stephen Krashen and Douglas Biber, concluded that students in “well-designed” bilingual education programs learn English quickly and well. Their study singled out the L.A. school district’s Eastman program and the San Diego Unified School District’s immersion (in Spanish) program as exemplary. Commendably, some L.A. school board members, administrators and a minority of teachers are trying to improve a bilingual programs even as UTLA members would prefer to dunk their immigrant students in English.

Yet the most absurd argument of all is that mere diversity of languages (80*** foreign languages are spoken in the L.A. school district) makes bilingual education impractical. Well, of the 159,250 students identified as having limited English proficiency, 143,546 are Latino. The remainder are mainly Asian.

Although the logic and data supports the continuation of bilingual programs, they, regrettably, aren’t sufficient to sway teachers and politicians who feel more secure manufacturing myths. But unlike Ivan Illich in his 1960s classic “Deschooling Society,” I don’t lay the blame on teachers. I have known and worked with too many dedicated ones. I only wish they would realize that the jobs are in part the result of a lot of brown faces and that educated people can master more than one language.