Magazine | April 3, 2017, Issue

California’s Bilingual-Ed Mistake

(Roman Genn)
Voters replaced a program that was working with one that didn’t

Kenneth Noonan speaks with the zeal of a convert. “I’m convinced,” he says, “that there’s a best way to teach English to kids who don’t know it: all day, every day, from their first day in school.”

The founder of the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) isn’t supposed to talk like this — and back when he still served as a public-school superintendent, he didn’t: “We believed that students needed to become fluent in their native language before they could learn English.”

Then Noonan changed his mind. Now he wishes that California voters hadn’t changed theirs.

Last November, they approved Proposition 58, which repealed an 18-year-old law that had required public schools to take the all-English approach that Noonan came to favor. “Voters made a big mistake,” says Noonan, a Mexican American (with an Irish last name). “I don’t think they knew what they were doing.”

If he’s right, then a lot of people got snookered: California’s ballot featured 18 proposals on Election Day, and Prop 58 won 73 percent of the vote — more than any of the others. It even ran eleven points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s never-in-doubt victory in the deep-blue Golden State.

In approving Prop 58, Californians apparently have forgotten why they rejected so-called bilingual education a generation ago. “We learned from experience that it did a poor job of teaching children how to speak English,” says Rosalie Pedalino Porter, an author and onetime bilingual-ed teacher who, like Noonan, came to oppose a method that she says doesn’t work. She’s worried, and with good reason: The comeback of old-fashioned bilingual education in America’s biggest state represents a reversal of a great but unheralded public-policy achievement of the conservative movement.

A century ago, during the last great wave of immigration, most teachers agreed that kids who needed to learn English should hear it all day in school. Through immersion, they reasoned, children — whose brains are especially suited to language acquisition — would master the lingua franca of the United States. During the 1960s, however, educators began to question this tried-and-true approach. As immigration levels inched upward, they argued that students could transition into English only after they had become fluent in a native tongue. They called it “bilingual education,” but it rarely delivered true bilingualism. Some ethnic activists even questioned the goal of learning English, insisting that schools make native-language maintenance their objective.

“We formed organizations to promote these views,” says Noonan, who was a young teacher when he founded CABE in the early 1970s. With the establishment of the National Association for Bilingual Education a few years later, the new pedagogy entrenched itself. “For a generation, the schools had a policy of Spanish first,” says Linda Chavez, whose 1991 book Out of the Barrio issued a devastating critique of this method. “They called it ‘bilingual education,’ but it was really a monolingual education in Spanish.”

This style of education never really caught on with other languages, mainly owing to numbers. Since 1965, more than half of all immigrants to the U.S. have come from Latin America, a vast region dominated by Spanish speakers. About half as many immigrants have come from Asia, but Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos don’t share a tongue. Even today, more than 80 percent of California students learning English as a second language (ESL) speak Spanish at home, according to the state’s language census. The second-largest group of ESL learners is Vietnamese, who make up only about 2 percent of students — not nearly enough to sustain a vigorous program of native-language maintenance.

By the 1990s, thousands of Hispanic children in California heard little or no English during the school day — and many of their parents began to question whether this was a good idea. In 1996, a group of them in the garment district of Los Angeles boycotted school for two weeks. “I want my children to learn English so they won’t have the problems which I’ve had,” said Lenin Lopez, one of their spokesmen.

The coverage of their protest caught the attention of Ron K. Unz, a software entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He came up with a political response: a ballot initiative to require schools to teach children in English. Known as Proposition 227, it faced fierce opposition from teachers’ unions and their allies, who outspent its backers by a five-to-one margin. Yet its message was simple — “English for the children” — and it won support from the likes of Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles calculus teacher who was at the time possibly the most famous instructor in America, his story having been immortalized in the film Stand and Deliver. Prop 227 coasted to victory in 1998, carrying 61 percent of the vote.

“I opposed it and campaigned against it,” says Noonan. By the time he voted against it, the founder of CABE had spent a career in California’s public schools, rising from classroom teacher of bilingual education to superintendent of schools in Oceanside, near San Diego. Following the approval of Prop 227 in June, he met with his school board. “I told them that we have to follow the law when school begins in September,” says Noonan, who is now retired. “But I thought it took a meat-axe approach and that kids would drop out.”

The following December, however, he visited a classroom. “A second-grade teacher had invited me,” he recalls. “She put me with a boy who had arrived from Mexico just a few months earlier. We picked out a new book — one he hadn’t seen — and he read from it, moving his little finger across the lines and speaking the words. I was impressed that he could pronounce them, but I assumed that he didn’t understand what he was reading. So I asked a few questions. His comprehension was almost 100 percent.” Other teachers in Noonan’s school system reported similar success. “That’s when I became a convert,” he says.

Two years later, these anecdotes and others like them turned into hard data. Newspaper headlines told the story. USA Today: “Students flourish under ‘English immersion.’ ” New York Times: “Test Scores Rise, Surprising Critics of Bilingual Ban.” Noonan wrote about his experience in the Washington Post under the headline “I Believed That Bilingual Education Was Best . . . Until the Kids Proved Me Wrong.”

The revolution was complete: California had transformed the way it taught kids who spoke limited English, in a clear win for the principle of assimilation over balkanization. There could hardly have been a place that needed it more. Today, 10 million immigrants live in California — almost a quarter of all the foreign-born people in the United States. In the state’s schools, more than 40 percent of children come from homes where a language other than English is spoken.

Yet complacency set in. As English became the new normal in California schools, people began to forget the way things used to be. At the same time, many educators maintained an ideological commitment to bilingual education. It may have been dead in California, but it was alive in other states — and the activists waited for a new opening. They also began to build a legend about Prop 227: It was racist.

“There was a racist undertone when it came to Spanish speakers,” said Democratic state senator Ricardo Lara last year. That must have come as a surprise to the Hispanic boycotters who inspired Prop 227. Yet the idea caught on, especially among liberal reporters who refuse to second-guess their assumptions. Writing last year in Governing, Liz Farmer claimed that voters approved Prop 227 “amid anti-immigrant fervor.”

In Sacramento, Lara pushed a plan to repeal Prop 227. He and his colleagues then put it on the November ballot, allowing its backers to forgo the costly route of collecting thousands of signatures, which is the usual path for activists who seek to place referenda in front of voters. Their initiative became known as Prop 58, and the ballot language described it as a measure that “preserves [the] requirement that public schools ensure students obtain English language proficiency.” The words that Californians read in their voting booths and state-published voting guides suggested that Prop 58 would merely give schools more flexibility. It also implied that Prop 227 had stood in the way of immersion programs that help native English speakers learn a second language. The media barely covered the subject. In 1998, the Los Angeles Times referenced Prop 227 in nearly 400 articles. Last year, it mentioned Prop 58 in a dozen.

“This was totally deceptive,” says Unz. “People didn’t know that they were repealing Prop 227 and all of its benefits.” A Field poll appears to back him up. In September, when pollsters read the ballot language to California voters, 69 percent said they favored Prop 58. When respondents heard an alternative description that mentioned the repeal of Prop 227, support for Prop 58 fell by more than half, to just 30 percent, and a small majority — 51 percent — said they opposed the measure.

Yet on November 8, nearly 10 million Californians voted away a policy with a proven track record, perhaps without really knowing what they were doing. Years may pass before school districts hire or train the small army of teachers they’ll need to restore the old pedagogy of bilingual education for Spanish speakers, but the transformation is already under way, in a new blow to America’s common culture.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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