Bilingual doesn’t work in any language

Latino kids advancing in English-speaking classes should get an A, but those politicians holding students back in bilingual classes deserve a failing grade

When test scores came out a few days back showing that Latino immigrant kids in California are learning to read and write English at a steadily faster pace, California’s schools superintendent, Jack O’Connell, urged schools to move kids more quickly from English-learner classes into mainstream classrooms.

Good idea, since Latino children can’t get access to rigorous academics like Advanced Placement courses for college as long as the kids are still designated by officials as “English learners.”

It’s really kind of rich that O’Connell is urging schools to stop holding kids back in English-learner classes. O’Connell shares tremendous blame for the fact that Latino children are being warehoused in these training-wheels classes long after they can read and write in English.

The time when O’Connell could blame others for holding back immigrant children has long since passed. As superintendent, he has failed to publicly release crucially important data that shows how well English-immersion kids are doing compared with kids trapped in “bilingual” classrooms that still teach in Spanish.

If the public could get its hands on the information O’Connell is protecting, we’d see an end to this coy debate over whether kids are learning English better by being taught in English.

Under the old “bilingual” system that operated from the late 1970s to the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of kids got stuck in Spanish-speaking classes, with very little English. By my calculations, the long-running fad created more than 1 million young adults who can barely read and write in English. Illiteracy among young adults in Southern California, for example, is in the stratosphere—concentrated among Latino immigrants who attended local schools.

Yet, on February 9, according to one newspaper, O’Connell declined to “guess” whether the mass, direct, explicit teaching of English that has swept the classrooms since 1999 is why the children are reading and writing English like never before.

O’Connell is playing a dangerous game by being so weak. Now that it has lost at the polls, the hard-core “bilingual” education lobby is pushing hard to stick Latino children in a dumbed-down, separate curriculum. The state Legislature soon will begin hearings aimed at this topic.

What’s driving the foolishness of the state Legislature? For one thing, “bilingual” teachers in California get $5,000 extra to teach in Spanish instead of in English—and that’s a major lobby and major motivator in fighting English immersion. More importantly, many leaders in the Capitol’s Latino Caucus are aging leftists who see the English language as a tool of repression.

At upcoming education hearings, lawmakers are scheduled to hear from the Pied Piper of the disastrous bilingual fad, Canadian education theorist Jim Cummins. Cummins, who buttresses his theories with “studies” that are badly disguised position papers written by hard-core bilingual advocates, is one of the folks who see English as a repressive tool against minorities. So, embrace him in Sacramento!

O’Connell no doubt will sit on the sidelines while the Latino Caucus and old lefties in the Legislature try to undermine the schools again this year. After all, the Latino Caucus recently successfully hounded out of public office the widely respected liberal Democrat Reed Hastings, who was president of the California State Board of Education.

Hastings, a Gray Davis appointee then reappointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was blocked by the far left in Sacramento for having the nerve to advocate the teaching of intensive English, even in the mostly Spanish “bilingual” programs.

If O’Connell had the guts to publicly say what most Californians already know is true—English immersion works great—the howl would be deafening from Latino leaders. O’Connell would get into hot water with people who can affect his budget, like state Senator Martha Escutia, the key advocate against Hastings.

Latino leaders are caught up in a culture of denial about how incredibly wrong they were about Proposition 227, the English-immersion measure sponsored by multimillionaire Ron Unz and strongly backed by voters in 1998. Now, they try to silence any powerful Democrat in Sacramento who disagrees with them.

It helps to remember all the absurd comments Latino leaders and others were making back in 1998:

• Then-President Bill Clinton opposed Proposition 227. A Clinton aide told one major newspaper that its “extreme approach” of teaching the kids in English rather than in Spanish “is likely to result in fewer kids learning English and fewer kids doing well in other academic subjects.”

The opposite has occurred.

• Then-San Francisco Board of Education President Carlota del Portillo, whose board fought implementation of English immersion, announced to journalists that English immersion “has no educational basis and would set our students back 30 years.”

Wrong on both counts. San Francisco kids are becoming more literate in English every year, helping them improve in all subjects.

• Univision Communications chief and billionaire Jerry Perenchio poured $1.5 million into defeating Proposition 227. One Perenchio aide declared that teaching immigrant kids in English—the most common method in the United States—was “an untested teaching method.”

As critics noted, Univision stood to lose market share of Spanish listeners if too many young Californians got comfortable in English.

• Then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, now running for mayor of Los Angeles, denounced Proposition 227 as being like Proposition 187, which denied benefits to illegal immigrants. Villaraigosa told a reporter that Pete Wilson’s support of English immersion was typical of a guy with “a history of supporting divisive and polarizing issues.”

But, to everyday Californians, bilingual education was the divisive issue.

• Then-state Senator Richard Polanco told a newspaper, “I’ll tell you, the Unz initiative will do more damage to the [children] in the long run.”

Wrong again. Latino immigrant high-school kids—who’ve been taking English immersion since 1999—show true gains in English literacy.

Latino leaders need to get over their psychological hatred of English immersion. California must educate a massive, yearly influx of new, non-English speaking kids from Mexico and other Central American countries. And we must do it at levels seen nowhere else in the United States.

As demographer Hans Johnson, of the Public Policy Institute of California, tells me, “Probably the single biggest mistake the media makes in explaining California is to not even mention that the continual wave of immigrants really drives our numbers.”

In Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, an eye-popping 43 percent of kids are “limited English”—mostly Mexican immigrants. Yet, today, kids in Los Angeles are catching up to those in Boston and New York City on national English reading tests.

This is significant because in Boston, just 21 percent of students are learning English well. In New York, only 17 percent of kids are learning English. Kids in Los Angeles are ahead of kids in Washington, D.C., in English, even though only 12.5 percent of D.C. students are “limited English proficient.” Los Angeles, with 43 percent learning English, should be far behind these cities. It isn’t, because reform is working.

The districts that have improved the most in California are the ones that most quickly abandoned the “bilingual education” mantra soon after Proposition 227 was approved.

For example, Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Carl Cohn in 1998 stuck his neck out and boldly told a newspaper, “We recognize that the voters have sent us, the educational establishment, a real clear message about the importance of English.”

Today, Long Beach kids are learning English at such a clip that in 2003-2004 almost 17 percent of immigrant kids were deemed fully proficient in English. That means those kids can now take Advanced Placement classes for college.

In 1998, Los Angeles Unified School District’s then-school-board president, Caprice Young, told me, “We have got to recognize that English is the best way to teach English—and we have to get our very reluctant teachers to see this.”

Today, Los Angeles’ teachers do see—in a big way. Back in 2001, some 6,000 “bilingual” teachers were earning an extra $2,500 to $5,000 a year to teach almost entirely in Spanish. Today, only 679 “bilingual” teachers are being paid extra to teach largely in Spanish.

In a major achievement for a big urban school district, the scores released by O’Connell’s office on February 8 show that 49 percent of Los Angeles’ immigrant kids are fluent in English. That compares with just 16 percent of Los Angeles kids who were fluent back in 2001, before the reforms fully kicked in.

See any pattern there, Mr. O’Connell?

Notice the huge drop in teachers who teach Spanish (from 6,000 to 679), and concurrent huge gains among kids who can read and write in English now (from 16 percent to 49 percent)?

Even as we speak, the California Legislature is hurtling toward more mischief, abetted by O’Connell’s silence. It’s time for moderate, sensible Democrats like O’Connell to stop cowering.

Ronni Ephraim, the talented chief instructional officer at L.A. Unified, notes that Latino parents in Los Angeles “now recognize that at school their child should acquire a strong base of English, and at home they can support them in maintaining their home language. Parents want their children to be competitive.”

So, why is the California Legislature once again trying to create a separate curriculum, separate materials and lower standards for Latino kids? Why have legislators invited to town one of the worst Pied Pipers of the bilingual-education fiasco?

“I don’t understand Sacramento,” Ephraim told me. “Why would anyone want to hold a kid back?”