Sunday, February 05, 2006

Bilingual Education and the 'Reality of the World': Head-On Collision in the Making

The State Board of Education will begin consideration this week of moving Texas classroom instruction away from the misnamed “bilingual” model to the successful English-immersion programs implemented in California and other states. Such a move, if the board eventually decides to make it, would be a fairly momentous and long-overdue step toward improving public schooling in the state.

Let’s be clear: Bilingualism is good, trilingualism is better, and quadrilingualism is just about the bee’s knees. Being able to speak two (or more) languages---and better yet, being literate in two (or more) languages---is one mark of an educated person (and, Lord, we wish we wuz one). But what’s transpiring in too many Texas classrooms isn’t “bilingualism”---it’s almost entirely Spanish-only instruction (and, because of the shortage of bilingual teachers, delivered more often than you’d think by a teacher whose English skills are only marginally better than our ability to communicate in Spanish---that’s scary), with 30 or 45 minutes a day set aside for desultory English instruction, including “English only” ancillary classes---P.E., music, art, etc. (“Hey, no Spanish here---we’re doing our stretching exercises in English today!”) Not exactly a strong foundation for English-language literacy.

These monolingual “bilingual” classes do the kids a terrible disservice. They go through too many of their school years communicating and learning almost exclusively in Spanish (although many of them, even the younger ones, have some English-speaking skills, thanks to television, video games, etc). Then they hit the “transition” year, when they’re finally supposed to be shifting over to English instruction (sort of), and---BAM!---they’re broadsided by having to take the 5th grade TAKS exams in English, etc. Success on standardized tests depends to a great extent on mastering the basic vocabulary of the subject---science, social studies, language arts and even math---and that’s where many of these children are sorely lacking.

The gap widens in middle school, and it’s not a great speculative leap to suggest that bilingual education contributes to the high dropout rate among Hispanic teenagers once they hit the 9th grade. On the face of it, it’s an absurd system, one that’s taken deep root through a confluence of political and academic hackery and general public ignorance and/or indifference.

If the SBOE actually wades into the issue, prepare to hear the predictable howling from the predictable quarters, similar to that which accompanied the Houston school district’s effort to revise (kinda sorta) its bilingual policy several years back. According to this Houston Chronicle article, the state board plans to hear from a representative of the Lexington Institute, a think tank that pushes “market solutions” to public-policy issues, so already you can hear defenders of the current system grousing about a right-wing Neocon conspiracy, whatever. Expect academics and editorialists to dig up studies and heart-rending anecdotal evidence purporting to show the benefits and successes of bilingual education. But as Ron Unz, the California businessman who spearheaded the California initiative for English immersion, said a few years ago:
The war is over, at least it would be over if academics were willing to look at the reality of the world rather than their own research.
At this point, the SBOE is supposedly in an information-gathering phase, but at least that’s a start.

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