Twisted Tongues: The Failure of Bilingual
Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Ed.D.
Som Sak spoke English as well as any 5-year-old growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts. He also spoke
the Khmer language of his Cambodian family. When his father took him to school to enroll him in kindergarten,
he was given an English test. The child was shy and frightened and would not talk. His father said, "The lady and
the man who give the test, they ask the kid, like do something. Pick up the pen on the floor. My son know the
answer, but he scared, he not talk. When my kid not answer, they put in
In 1996, 95% of the kindergartners in the Cambodian bilingual classes were born in the U.S. and already
spoke English. These children are being taught in Khmer most of the school day, with a half-hour or so of English.
* * *
"My grandson was in bilingual education from kindergarten through fifth grade...He is now in seventh
grade and cannot read in either English or Spanish...We were told that because my grandson has a Spanish last
name, he should remain in bilingual
- Ada Jimenez, Bushwick Parents Organization, Brooklyn, New York.
* * *
The Reverend Alice Callaghan, Episcopal Priest, organized an after-school day care center for the
children of Mexican immigrant garment workers in East Los Angeles. "What we know is the bilingual system was
intended to help children learn another language and maybe it works in some places, but we know our children are not learning to read and write in English...And poor kids don't have the luxury of catching up later
* * *
What is going on in American schoolrooms? What is happening to the fastest growing portion of
the U. S. student populationthe 3.4 million children from immigrant, migrant and refugee families? What
educational genius decided that these children should be divided up according to the language spoken in
their homes and taught in that language? Are these children being treated in radically different ways from
earlier generations of immigrant children and is this form of segregation legal? The answers to the last two
questions are "Yes" and "Yes."
To understand the 30-year experiment called "bilingual education" we look back to the late
1960s, the height of the Civil Rights movement for African Americans. At that time, Latino activists began to
protest the damaging circumstances of Spanish-speaking children who were dropping out of school in
unacceptably high numbersas high as 50% in some cities. For a decade U. S. schools had seen a growing number
of Cuban refugee children in Florida; Mexican immigrant children in the border states; and the children of
Puerto Rican migrants in the New York and New England areas. These children were often neglected, given
no special help, and sometimes put in classes for the mentally retarded.
Latino leaders borrowed the strategies of the Civil Rights movement, calling for special legislation
to address the needs of Spanish-speaking children. Senator Ralph Yarborough filed a bill in 1968 aimed
at removing the language barrier to an equal education, and Congress approved it. The Bilingual Education
Act, when it started, was a modestly funded ($7,500,000) segment of the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act of 1968, aimed at helping poor Mexican-American children learn English. At the time, Senator
Yarborough said, "The goal is not to keep any specific language alive. It is not the purpose of the bill to create pockets
of different languages throughout the country, but just to try to make those children fully literate in English."
English was not always the language of instruction in American public schools. From the
mid-seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, classes were taught in German in some mid-western
states; French was the language of instruction in many parochial and a few public schools in Louisiana and in
several New England states; Greek in Pittsburgh. After the first World War, public sentiment was strongly
opposed to conducting public school classes in any language but English--and especially not in German.
These earlier decisions on education policy were made in the school, the church, the city or the state.
Local conditions determined local school policy. But in 1968, for the first time, the federal government
dictated how non-English speaking children must be educated. That one action spawned state laws,
court decisions up to the Supreme Court, and no end of money and effort poured into a program that has
become the most controversial arena in public education.
Who Are The Children and Where Are They?
In 1968, ninety percent of the limited-English students spoke Spanish. Today, there are 3.4
million limited-English students in U.S. public schools, 65 percent of whom speak Spanish at home; the rest
speak one of 327 other languages. California alone enrolls 1.4 million limited-English children in its schoolsone
of every four students in the state. According to the 1990 U. S. Census, 72 percent of the
limited-English students are concentrated in these six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.
The General Accounting Office reported to the U.S. Congress in 1994 that limited-English
students are now present in hundreds of school districts across the country, in rural and suburban as well as
urban schools. While the original Bilingual Education Act was intended to help Mexican children in the
Southwest and Cuban children in Florida, the demographics have changed dramatically. A few examples illustrate
the growth in varieties of languages and ethnicities:
The Seattle, Washington, School District, enrolls 6,000 limited-English students from 90
different language backgrounds (mostly from Asian, Pacific Island, and African countries)
among its total school population of 45,000 children. Ten years ago, the school district included
only a few hundred such students, the children of upper middle class, Japanese and Chinese
The upscale community of Newton, Massachusetts identified a few dozen
Italian-speaking children as "limited-English" twenty years ago (children of immigrant families that did the
menial work of the city). Today there are over 500 limited-English students in the tony
Newton schools from over 30 different language backgrounds.
Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, has long contained the largest
Arabic-speaking population outside of the Middle East. But in recent years, while the language of the
immigrant families has not changed, their socio-economic status has. Earlier immigrant families
from Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, were well-educated; today the majority are from the Yemen
and other less developed Arabian countries and the adults have little or no formal education.
What Is "Bilingual Education" in Plain English?
Good intentions do not always make good policy or produce good results. Bilingual education is a
classic example of an education experiment begun with the best of humanitarian good will that has turned out to
be terribly wrong-headed but is almost impossible to change. There is a lot of confusion and
misunderstanding about what we mean by "bilingual education," not only in the general public but among teachers and
lawmakers as well.
In the simplest terms, bilingual education is a special effort intended to help immigrant children learn
the English language so that they can do regular school work with their English-speaking classmates and receive
an equal educational opportunity. That's what it's supposed to bein the wording and the spirit of the
lawbut not what it has become in practice. Some experts decided early on that we should teach children in their
native language temporarily, so that they would continue to learn their school subjects while learning the
English language, a transition that would be accomplished in three years.
Beginning in the 1970s several notions were put forward to provide a rationale, after the fact, for
the bilingual teaching experiment. Jose Cardenas, the director emeritus of the Intercultural Development
Research Association, in San Antonio, and Blandina Cardinas, an associate professor of educational administration
at the University of Texas at San Antonio, published their "theory of incompatibilities." They declared
that Mexican children in the U.S. are so different from so-called "majority" children that they must be taught
in Spanish and must be taught about their ethnic culture if they are to develop the essential self-esteem that
will allow them to achieve academic success. Educators were convinced of the soundness of the ideaan
urgent need for special teaching for non-English-speaking childrenand judges handed down court decisions on
the basis of it.
Jim Cummins, a bilingual education theorist at the University of Toronto, contributed two hypotheses.
His "developmental interdependence" hypothesis suggests that learning to read in one's native language
facilitates reading in a second language. His "threshold hypothesis" proposes that children's achievement in the
second language depends on their mastery level of their native language and that the most positive cognitive effects
rest on a high development of both languages. Cummins's hypotheses were interpreted to mean that a
solid foundation in native-language literacy and subject-matter learning would best prepare students for learning
Transitional Bilingual Education Model
The new teaching model had never been seen or tried by any teacher or school administrator in
this country, yet legislators enacted state laws, starting in Massachusetts in 1971, that forced school districts
to adopt the Transitional Bilingual Education program, as follows:
Limited-English speaking children with the same native language must be grouped
together in a classroom where they will be taught all subjects in that languagereading, writing,
math, science, social studieswith a short, daily English language lesson (45 minutes), in the
first year. The ratio of native language teaching to English teaching is 80 percent to 20 percent
of the school day.
In the second year, some subjects will be taught in English, some in the native
language, moving to a 50-50 ratio of school time.
In the third year, most teaching will be in English, with some language arts still given in the
native language, composing an approximate 20-80 ratio favoring English.
My Experiences in the Bilingual Battleground
As an undergraduate student of Spanish literature in the early 1970s, I had intended to become a
high school teacher of Spanish, the language I had studied and loved for years. But when I learned of the
new bilingual education idea and that Spanish bilingual teachers were urgently needed, I changed my career
direction. My own experience as an immigrant child entering a classroom in Newark, New Jersey, not knowing
a word of English, inspired me to take up the teaching of immigrant childrenwith a passion.
For five years I worked as a Spanish bilingual teacher in an elementary school in the Puerto
Rican community of Springfield, Massachusetts, while pursuing graduate studies. I discovered very early that
the theories being pronounced as "gospel" at the University of Massachusetts did not match the reality of
the classroom. It was not a lack of resources that accounted for the poor results in student achievement in
my schoolthere was no serious shortage of Spanish/English bilingual teachers, and we had a curriculum
developed by the staff, as well as textbooks in Spanish provided to all bilingual classrooms. My students were
not "learning disabled"in every class there was a whole range of abilities from the few who were slow
learners to the very bright. Finally, I could not escape the conclusion that it was the basic idea of bilingual
education that was seriously flawed.
What I learned in one Springfield school has been confirmed by thousands of teachers across
the country and by the research reports of the past twenty years. To embrace Transitional Bilingual
Education wholeheartedly, one must make the proverbial leap of faith, a willing suspension of disbelief. Everything
we have learned from 2,000 years of experience in teaching languagesbeginning with Roman children
studying Greekmust be denied. Bilingual education denies that children learn a second language most naturally
and effectively if they begin at an early age, even though there is overwhelming proof in linguistic and
cognitive research. Just one quote from neurophysiologist William H. Calvin in
How Brains Think (1996) makes the point: "Asian immigrants who learn English as adults succeed with vocabulary and basic-word-order
sentences but have great difficulty with other [language] taskstasks that those who arrived as children
Another settled fact that bilingual education denies is the "time-on-task" principle, i.e., the more
time spent studying a subject, the better that subject will be learned. Clearly, a child who is taught mathematics
one hour a day will learn more math than the student who receives only 30 minutes of relevant instruction a day.
Bilingual education advocates insist that children who are taught in some other language most of the school
day for several years will become completely fluent and literate in English when they are olderan idea that
not only defies reason but, in fact, is now proven false.
What's Good About Bilingual Education?
Before entering the often murky waters of education research, there are some positive things to be
said about bilingual education. Most important is the heightened awareness of the real needs of immigrant,
migrant, and refugee children; the acceptance by the general public that these children are entitled to special help;
and the understanding that the economic well-being of our society rests in part on developing a population
with literacy in the common national language and the academic competence for higher education and skilled jobs.
The typical complaint heard years ago, "My grandfather came from Greece (or Sicily or Poland) and
they didn't do anything special for him and he did okay," has just about disappeared from public discussions.
Bilingual education has brought in extra funding that is used in part to hire and train
paraprofessionals to help in the classroom, often the parents of bilingual children. In several school districts, career
programs, such as an excellent one in Seattle, pay the college tuition for paraprofessionals to take courses that
will eventually qualify them to become teachers, thus bringing more teachers from immigrant communities into
the schools. Large school districts such as New York and Los Angeles long have maintained a staff of
psychologists, speech therapists, social workers, and other specialists with bilingual capabilities.
Promoting parent understanding of American schools and encouraging parent involvement in
school activities are also by-products of bilingual education. Workshops and training sessions for all educators on
the historical and cultural backgrounds of their rapidly growing and varied ethnic communities result in
greater understanding and respect for language minority children and their families. These days, teachers and
school administrators make greater efforts to communicate with language minority parents who do not know
English by sending letters and school information to the homes in the native languages and by employing interpreters
for parent-teacher conferences, when necessary. In all these ways, bilingual education has done some good.
Academic Achievement for Latino Students
Spanish-speaking students are the most heavily involved in native language instruction programs
and are the most at-risk group of students in our schools. The expectation that bilingual education would help
these students learn English faster and learn their school subjects better has not been realized, judging by the
alarming level of the high school dropout rates for this population, which have not improved in 25 years. Two
recent national reports provide the disappointing data. The final report of the Hispanic Dropout Project
(February, 1998) states "While the dropout rate for other school-aged populations has declined, more or less
steadily, over the last 25 years, the overall Hispanic dropout rate started higher and has remained between 30 and
35 percent during that same time period...2.5 times the rate for blacks and 3.5 times the rate for white
non-Hispanics." Partially contributing to these high numbers is the fact that one out of every five Latino children
never enters a U.S. school, which inflates the Latino dropout rate.
The National Center on Education Statistics report on the dropout situation (July 1997) concludes
that it is not the fact of speaking Spanish at home that accounts for youths dropping out of high school but
whether or not they had acquired English language ability for schoolwork. The report states: "For those youths
that spoke Spanish at home, English speaking ability was related to their success in school....Young
Hispanics reported to speak English `well' or `very well' had a dropout rate of 19.2 percent, comparable to the rate
of 17.5 percent for Hispanic youths who spoke only English at home." That is a tremendous gain over the
30% national dropout rate for this population.
Bilingual Education Research - 1968-1998
Thirty years of research and experience yield a truly disappointing but emphatic "No" in answer to
the question, "Are bilingual programs superior to other teaching approaches?" In the first ten years of
practicing the bilingual education approach described earlier, it was understandable that judgments should not be hasty.
Any new teaching method should be tried for several years by a large enough number of students to yield
reliable results before it is judged successful or not. With bilingual education, it was necessary to start
teacher training programs, recruit qualified teachers, write curricula, find suitable textbooksstart up a whole
new industry, in effect.
Beginning in 1978, the first large-scale, U.S. government-sponsored studies began to appear and
they show almost no positive results for native language teaching. From that time on, the reports published by
local, state and federal agencies and summarized below show little or no positive results for the native
language teaching approach.
1978 - American Institutes for Research
(AIR) - Spanish-speaking students in bilingual
programs have less success in learning English than students receiving no special help at all. These
students learn math equally well if they are taught in Spanish and English or English alone.
1981 - Baker - deKanter Report (U.S. Department of
Education) - The case for the effectiveness of Transitional Bilingual Education is so weak that exclusive reliance on this instructional
method is clearly not justified.
1988 - Dade County, Florida, 3-Year Curriculum Content
Project - Limited-English students learned as much subject matter if they were taught in English or if they were taught in
Spanishno advantage for native language teaching.
1992 - El Paso, Texas, 10-Year
Project - Limited-English students in English immersion
classes out-performed children in Spanish bilingual classes in learning English and in learning school subjects.
1992 - California State Study - Results of 20 years of bilingual education: Poor quality of
bilingual programs; no evidence that native language teaching is beneficial; students kept in bilingual
classes years after they learn English.
1994 - Massachusetts State Study - Results of 23 years of bilingual: No evidence that
bilingual programs produce good or bad results; no data evaluating academic performance of
1994 -New York City Study-Limited-English students in English as a Second Language
classes exited their special program faster (3 years) and did better in regular classrooms than students
taught in their native language (7 years).
1997 - National Research Council Study
- on 30 years of bilingual education research: "We
do not know whether there will be long-term advantages or disadvantages to initial literacy instruction
in the primary language versus English."
(Prepared by R. P. Porter, New York University School of Law Symposium, 2/27/97.)
Christine M. Rossell, political science professor at Boston University, published the most
current, comprehensive review of the methodologically acceptable studies showing the effect of transitional
bilingual education (TBE) on English language development, reading and mathematics, compared to four other
teaching strategies: "submersion," i.e., giving no special help; English as a Second Language (ESL); structured
immersion in English; and maintenance bilingual education. The results, shown in Table 2, are reported, with
full citiations for each study, in Bilingual Education in Massachusetts: The Emperor Has No
Clothes (Boston: Pioneer Institute, 1995).
We reach the very heart of the controversy over bilingual education when we ask ourselves,
finally, "What good has the expenditure of all this time, effort and tax money actually done for our students,
the children who enter our schools without fluency in the common language, generally from families of
poverty, who genuinely need help?" The accumulated research of the past 30 years reveals an almost complete lack
of justification for teaching children in their native language, either for learning English or for learning of
school subjects--and these are the twin objectives of all legislation and court decisions in this field. A close reading
of the reliable studies also reveals that there is no higher level of self-esteem among limited-English students
who are taught in their native language or in English, and no higher level of stress among children who are
introduced to English from the first day of school--yet these are the factors most often cited by advocates of
Professor Stephen Krashen at the University of Southern California is one of the most prominent
and influential authorities promoting the hypotheses of Jim Cummins. He insists that children who are educated
in their native language for several years form a secure foundation for second language learning and
academic success. Krashen designed such a program--The Eastman Model--which has been copied in hundreds
of California schools. However, this "model" program reports a sucess rate of approximately 5 percent to
8 percent of students who are judged "fully English proficient" each year among those schools using The
Accountability, Or The Lack Of It
It is abundantly clear that there has been an almost total lack of accountability in the case of
language minority children. Massachusetts and California, the former having initiated Transitional Bilingual
Education and the latter containing 43 percent of the limited-English students in the U.S, have the most wretched
reocrds of failure. California tolerates a success rate of only 5 perscent of its limited-English students "graduating"
out of bilingual classrooms each year and does not consistently collect data on bilingual student progress.
Massachusetts, whose state law has required the collection of data on bilingual student progress annually since
1971, has never done it. Its Department of Education monitors schools to see how many hours of the school
day students are taught in the native language, how many bilingual teachers are employed , and so on.
Yet, curiously, no information has been collected for 27 years on what progress in academic learning is taking
place for bilingual children!
Under the new Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993,
all children are to be tested annually to chart academic improvement. In the first statewide reading test for all third graders in April 1997, evasion
is still practiced. While 99 percent of all students in regular classes took the reading test, and 92 percent
of children in Special Education (emotional, behavioral or learning problems), only 58 percent of the chilren
in bilingual classes were tested. The prize for the truly outrageous goes to the Framingham Public Schools,
which excused 97 percent of the bilingual third graders from testing!
The Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA) in Washington,
D.C. has done an even worse job than the states, according to the 1997 National Research Council (NRC) study.
The federal agency that is responsible for telling us how to educate language minority children has failed to
do its job in three very important ways: (1) in its incompetent management of the research agenda, (2) by
its biased use of the research to bolster the case for the bilingual strategy, for political reasons, rather than using
it to learn what works and what does not, and (3) by its failure to make what is learned from the funded
research available for the improvement of school programs. Professor Charles Glenn of Boston University, who
reviewed the NRC study before publication, cites this example to illustrate the irresponsibility of OBEMLA.
In 1992, a budget analyst wanted to review the 91 research studies that had been carried out with $47
million from OBEMLA between 1981 and 1991. He could not find files for 40 of the studies, since
all research files for the period 1978 to 1985 had been thrown
away. Of the available files, it appeared that 29 might be
useful for formulating policy but it was uncertain that anyone had ever looked at them.
Of all the reports to date, the 1997 National Research Council study is the most comprehensive
and reliable for these reasons: the research team and its two chairmen, Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University
and Diane August of the National Academy of Science, all have excellent credentials and are generally
sympathetic to bilingual education, and the study covers the entire 30 years of bilingual education data available. If
these respected scholars had found positive things to say about the benefits of native language teaching, it
would have been shouted from the academic rooftops. It is a credit to their honesty that the major conclusions of
the NRC study are published, conclusions that do serious damage to the mythology of bilingual education.
They demonstrate that 30 years of research have not produced evidence of long-term benefits from teaching
limited-English children in the native language, and further, that teaching children to read in English right from the
start and not in their native language does not have any negative consequences for these children. If it cannot
be demonstrated that in 30 years of practice the experiment has produced better results most of the time, then
it is not worth the effort. Enough, already.
One scholar whose research findings are not included in the NRC study is Professor Virginia P.
Collier of George Mason University. Collier has become the most quoted and interviewed bilingual education
expert in the U.S. in the past decade. She claims that limited-English students who are initially taught in their
native language will reach an average ability to do class work in English in five to seven years, but that students
who are not taught in their native language will need seven to ten years to master English for average
classroom performance. Collier's work could not be included in the NRC study because no one has been allowed to
see her datano peer review; she has released only a 4-page announcement of "findings" for research that
was completed years ago. To the average intelligent adult, it would seem an absurdity that even with no special
help a child sitting in a U.S. classroom would need seven to ten years to learn English, yet bilingual
education advocates dutifully quote the Collier "evidence."
If It Doesn't Work, Then Why Don't We Fix It Or Scrap
Repairing or abandoning current methods of bilingual education is much easier said than done. In
this emotional minefield of ethnic education politics, it was long ago established that any critic of bilingual
education is almost certainly a racist, a hater of foreign languages and a hater of immigrants. For these reasons,
teachers who are disappointed in the results of bilingual programs have been reluctant to speak out. State and
federal legislators have kept a notoriously low profile on this issue, reluctant to change existing laws in order to
give school districts a choice of programs for fear of losing ethnic votes. Professional organizations such as
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), the National Council of Teachers of English
(NCTE), the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), and teachers unions such as the
powerful National Education Association, have all proclaimed uncritical support for bilingual education. There
is not even a tolerance for open debate in these organizations, although there certainly are differences of
opinion among the members.
For example, in April 1996 I received a notice that the national ASCD convention would feature a
full day of presentations on the education of language minority children. I noted that every single speaker
supports bilingual programs. I called the conference organizer, Jayne Osgood, and asked why there was no variety
of perspectives in the presentations and I asked if my organization, the READ Institute, might be included in
the program. The astonishing answer was that ASCD has taken a position on this issue and does not believe
in presenting other views, even though they know that there is much disagreement on the merits of
TESOL, with a membership of over 15,000 ESL teachers, unequivocally supports native
language teaching programs. The annual convention has never featured a major speaker who has voiced a
different opinion. At the 1994 convention, Professor Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, language authority from Finland, told
the audience that immigrant children in U.S. schools should be taught only in their native language for at least
7-8 years, for if we make them learn English too soon we are committing linguistic
genocide. Many in the audience were shocked but no one spoke up.
Professional organizations such as the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) and
ethnic advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza, Multicultural Education and Training
Advocacy (META), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and ASPIRA, the
Puerto Rican group concerned with education issues, have long been staunch supporters of and lobbyists for
bilingual education. Do these groups truly speak for the aspirations of Latinos in the United States or have they
lost touch with their constituency?
What Do Latino Parents Really Want?
Several national surveys of the parents of limited-English school children in the past ten years
have yielded a strong majority view that learning English and having school subjects taught in English is of
much greater importance than teaching in the native language or teaching about the family "culture." Of the
most reliable of these surveys, two are most representative. In 1988 the Educational Testing Service (ETS)
conducted a national Parent Preference Survey among 2,900 Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Asian
parents with children in U.S. public schools. All parents said they wanted their children to be given special help to
learn English and to learn their school subjects. However, they differed on whether their children should be taught
in the native language. Asian parents were most opposed to native language use in the schools. Among
Latino groups, Puerto Rican parents were most in favor, Mexicans somewhat less, and Cubans least of all. A
large majority of the parents answered that it is the family's duty--not the school's--to teach children about
the history and traditions of their ancestors.
We know, of course, that the way in which a survey question is worded influences the kind of
answer obtained. For example, in the ETS survey, when Mexican parents were asked if they wanted the school
to teach reading and writing in Spanish and English, 70 percent answered "Yes." But when they were asked
if they wanted Spanish taught in school if it meant less time for teaching English, only 12 percent
The most recent national survey of Latino parents is one published by the Center for Equal
Opportunity in Washington, DC. Six hundred Spanish-speaking parents of school-age children in five U.S.
cities (Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Antonio) were interviewed, in English or Spanish.
The results once again reveal a strong majority favoring the learning of English as the first order of business for
their children, a priority of more urgent importance than learning school subjects, and far ahead of reading
and writing in Spanish.
Latinos-And Others-Take Action!
Beginning gradually and very quietly in the 1980s and gaining momentum in the 1990s, the
opposition to native language teaching programs is now publicly visible. Change is being impelled by three groups that
are most seriously concerned with effective education for language minority children: parents, teachers, and
school administrators. Especially important are the new protests and demands being made by Latino parents.
Of equal importance are the initiatives being taken by educators in fighting for new programs and defending
their choices in the courts.
Two community actions by Latino parents illustrate this striking turn of events. Traditionally,
immigrant parents are respectful of school authorities, reluctant to question the advice of teachers and school principals.
Working class parents with little education themselves defer easily to the "wisdom" of schoolteachers.
But experience has taught these people a bitter lesson about misplaced trust. Two groups of Latino
parentsone in New York and one in Los Angeleslaunched aggressive protests nearly simultaneously.
One hundred and fifty families with children in Brooklyn public schools filed a lawsuit,
Bushwick Parents Organization vs. Richard P. Mills, Commissioner of Education of the State of New York, and
ASPIRA of New York, Inc., in September 1995, charging that, because the children of its members
routinely remain segregated in bilingual programs in excess of three years, and in some cases in excess of six
years, contrary to State Education Law 3204 (2), these children are not receiving adequate instruction in English,
"the crucial skill that leads to equal opportunity in schooling, jobs, and public life in the United States."
New York state law limits participation in a bilingual program to three years, but this can be
extended up to six years, based on an individual review of each student's
progress. And here is the nub of the law suit:
thousands of students are routinely kept in native language classrooms up to six years or longer without
even the pretense of an individual review of progress.
Unfortunately, even with the help of a strong champion for their cause, Sister Kathy Maire, and the
pro bono services of one of the most prestigious law firms in New York CityPaul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton
& Garrisonthe parents did not win their case. Apparently Judge Teresi was not sufficiently swayed by
the testimony of Sister Kathy who said, in part,
...Many of these children were born in the United States and attended Head Start programs in
English [at ages 3 and 4], but were then placed in bilingual programs when they entered the public
school....Many of these students graduate from school having never fully developed their English language skills,
and they are therefore unprepared for higher education and employment.
Under New York law, these parents in fact have the right
not to enroll their children in bilingual classes
and, later, to remove them from bilingual classes, but in practice the pressure from school personnel is
almost impossible to overcome. Teachers and principals tell parents that their children will fail in English
language classrooms. They play on ethnic pride, asserting that children of Latino background need to be taught
in Spanish to improve their self-esteem.
In May 1997, the Court of Appeals of the State of New York ruled that there could be no
further appeals of this case. However, all this effort was not in vain. The favorable publicity may encourage
other Latino parents to take action on behalf of their children.
And one concrete improvement already has occurred:
in 1996 the New York City Board of Education announced an end to the automatic English testing of
children with Spanish surnames when they start school. Finally, this discriminatory practice has ended.
On the other coast, an equally irate group of Latino parents opposed the Ninth Street School in
Los Angeles. Seventy families of Mexican garment workers planned the protest through Las Familias del
Pueblo, a community organization that provides after-school care for their children. Typical of the protesters are
Juana and Florencio, who left the poverty of a rural Mexican village in 1985 to come to work in L.A. Their
children were born in Los Angeles, but the school insisted that they should not be taught in English until they learned
to read and write in Spanish, by 4th or 5th grade. For years the parents complained to the schools that
children who live in Spanish-speaking homes and neighborhoods need to study English in the primary grades, or
it becomes much more difficult to learn the language later on.
Years of stonewalling by the school administrators finally resulted in the parents keeping their
children out of school for two weeks in February 1996, a boycott that made the national press. The parents
were assured that all their demands would be met: increased English language teaching, reading and writing
in English to be taught earlier, and retraining of teachers. Why did the school staff have to wait until the
situation became so explosive before they considered making changes? The school administrators had known
the previous spring that only six students (about one percent of enrollment) were rated sufficiently fluent in
English to "graduate" to regular classrooms in the next school year.
These parents know that every year in a child's life spent in an ineffective classroom makes it that
much harder, especially for children of poverty, to catch up. How that precious, early learning opportunity is
being wasted is illustrated by a 16-year old neighborhood boy who has been in L.A. schools since kindergarten
and who spent several years in a Spanish "bilingual" program. Through great personal effort, this young
man gained admission to an academically superior high school and he is working hard not to flunk out. But
having missed so many years of English in the elementary grades makes high school more difficult than it should be.
He said to a reporter, "I can read, but I can't understand what I am reading. They never showed me
the vocabulary I need now."
School Districts are Making Radical Changes
Because of the generally disappointing results for students in native language teaching programs,
many schools are either quietly or very publicly joining a new trend towards emphasizing early English
language acquisition. I do not know of a single school district that is proposing to stop spending extra money on
limited-English studentsbut many are determined to spend it differently. The Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Area
School District best exemplifies this movement.
For fifteen years the district provided a full Spanish bilingual program for about 1200 Puerto
Rican students, with fully bilingual teachers, a well-developed curriculum, and textbooks in Spanish and English.
The students were bused from their neighborhoods to special schools where they were grouped together for
mostly Spanish language instruction. School administrators and the school board were dismayed when, after years
of such efforts, they saw little evidence of English-language fluency or acceptable academic achievement for
these students, even after four or five years of bilingual instruction. Equally disappointing is the fact that very few
of these students enrolled in the more academically challenging courses offered in the high school to
prepare students for college.
Superintendent Thomas J. Doluisio decided the district had given more than enough time to this
experiment and needed to look to new strategies. He appointed a task force of teachers, administrators, and
parents who designed a new English Acquisition Program to commence in 1993. To be sure, there were a
few complaints from Latino community leaders and some bilingual teachers when the plan was first announced,
but surveys (in Spanish and English) conducted in the past 4 years reveal deep satisfaction with the new
program among a large majority of parents and teachers (over 70 percent). Limited-English students are no
longer bused to special classes far from home, they are integrated with their English-speaking buddies from the
first day of school and given special English lessons for part of each school day. High school
limited-English students are given intensive English and subject matter courses taught with a special English curriculum and
are encouraged to take advanced courses to prepare them for college as soon as possible.
The district is keeping careful records on student achievement. An article scheduled for publication
in the Fall 1998 issue of READ Perspectives (Vol. 5, 2), reports the following longitudinal data. 365
limited-English students entered the English Acquisition Program in September 1993 and of those still remaining
in Bethlehem schools (180) at the end of four years, 73% have reached full fluency in English and are able to
do regular school work in English without special assistance. Of the 198 limited-English students who entered
the schools in 1994 and have just completed their 3rd year, 56% are already fully English proficient. To
appreciate the significance of this rate of progress, a comparison with the statistics from the State of California are
instructive. For 1997, the "redesignation" rate state-wide for limited-English students to be pronounced fully
English proficient was 6.7%, up from about 5% in the two previous years. (Telephone information conveyed
by Debra Camillo, California State Department of Education, July 1998)
California: Test Case for the Nation
Whatever I have observed in my consulting work in Colorado, Florida, New York,
Massachusetts, and Texas, the place that has the nation's attention is California. And it is there, in our most multicultural
state where minorities now constitute the majority (51 percent) of the school population, that a mini-revolution
is stirring. In 1987 the California Legislature failed to reauthorize the Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act,
allowing it to expire. The California Department of Education immediately notified all school districts, however,
that even without the state law all the same requirements would be enforced and bilingual programs continued.
In July 1995, the State Board of Education announced two major policy changes: (1) henceforth the
"preference" for native language programs is removed, and all school districts have maximum flexibility in
choosing their own programs; and (2) school districts must be more diligent in recording evidence of student
achievement than in describing the teaching methods they use. Had flexibility and accountability come to California?
Not quite. The powerful State Department of Education was still in the position of power. In
two years, only four school districts have succeeded in obtaining "waivers" from the Department, granting
permission to initiate English language programs. But why should schools have to endure this "waiver" process
when there is no state or federal law, no court decision, and no state policy stopping them from teaching in English?
The small districts of Westminster, Magnolia, and Savanna obtained waivers after costly battles. The
most important case to date is that of the Orange Unified School District with its 7,000 limited-English
students, which has become a test case for program choice in California.
Orange Unified applied in May 1997 for permission to focus on English language teaching in
kindergarten through sixth grade, using a small amount of Spanish-language instruction. Its new program also
offers after-school language enrichment classes and English classes for parents. The State Department of
Education strongly opposed the plan, local Latino activists publicly criticized the district's change of plan, and
some bilingual teachers resigned. Bilingual education advocates came out in droves to oppose the Orange
application--especially the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), California Rural Legal
Assistance, and META.
Nevertheless, the State Board of Education voted on July 10, 1997, to grant Orange permission to
try an English language program for one year. It was a real victory for local choice. META and a few
other advocacy groups immediately filed a law suit in Superior Court to prevent Orange from starting its new
program. The first round went to META et al, when Judge Ronald Robie granted a Temporary Restraining
Order in early August.
Attorneys for the Orange district, Celia Ruiz and Michael Quinn, filed their appeal in U.S.
Federal District Court to remove the Temporary Restraining Order and let the schools get on with their work.
On September 10th, U.S. Federal District Court Judge William B. Shubb announced that plaintiffs had not made
a convincing case and he lifted the Temporary Restraining Order. The judge, in his 17-page decision,
wrote, "The court will not second-guess the educational policy choices made by educational authorities." He
also added a ruling with much broader application:
It is clear that "appropriate education" does not require "bilingual education." The alleged
difference between two sound LEP (Limited-English Proficient) educational theories-ESL (English as a
Second Language) and bilingual instruction-is inadequate to demonstrate irreparable harm.
Based on the Federal court ruling, Orange has proceed with its program. But the case has
been returned to the California Superior Court where Judge Ronald B. Robie ruled that nothing in California
state law requires primary-language instruction and therefore no waiver is needed for a district to provide an
English-language program; and, even more crucial, that federal law permits educational programs
not to include native-language teaching. This clearly is a victory for the Orange schools and has important implications
for other California districts, although the case has been appealed. The legal battle has cost the Orange
district $300,000. already, money that could have been better spent on its students. The new program is estimated
to cost an additional $60,000. the first year, but Orange schools' Superintendent Robert French noted,
"We're not doing this to save money. We're doing this to save kids."
The "English for the Children" Initiative
Ron Unz, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has long been concerned about the California education
system's failures in various areas and especially in the urgent educational needs of its 1.4 million limited-English students.
He decided to put his time, personal energy, and money into an initiative petition to give all California
voters their say on the language of public education. The Propostion 227 initiative, "English for the Children,"
gives "preference" to English language programs for immigrant children, reduces the length of this special
program, and requires that the state spend $50 million per year for ten years to teach English to adultes. Only in
districts where the parents actually request native language teaching for their children will such bilingual programs
In November 1997, Unz and co-chairman of the Propostion 227 English for the Chldren Campaign,
Gloria Matta Tuchman submitted over 700,000 signatures to put the petition on the California ballot for
June 1998. Shrewdly, the leaders of this drive have enlisted the support of several Latino leaders in California,
most notably that of Jaime Escalante as Honorary Chairman. Escalante is the Los Angeles high school
teacher whose success in teaching his Latino students advanced calculus gained him national fame in the film
Stand and Deliver.
Although some opponents of Proposition 227 characterized the petition as "anti-immigrant" and
"racist," Unz and Matta Tuchman have impeccable credentials on immigration issues. In 1994 Unz ran
against incumbent Pete Wilson in the Republican primary for governor and forcefully opposed the referendum to
deny schooling and health benefits to illegal immigrants, a measure that passed with Wilson's support. Matta
Tuchman is a recognized Latina spokesman for improving the schooling of all immigrant children, especially
On June 2nd, Proposition 227 was approved by 61% of California voters. The following day
a coalition of advocacy groups brought suit in the U.S. District Court for Northern California to declare the
new law unconstitutional, a violation of the civil rights of language minority students, and a discriminatory act
against national origin minorities. On July 15th, Judge Charles Legge ruled in a 49-page opinion that Proposition
227 is constitutional, and he refused a request to block its enforcement. Plaintiffs filed an appeal with the
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will take several months to be adjudicated. In the meantime, a request to
the courts for a Temporary Restraining Order, to stop the English-teaching requirement from being applied
while the appeal is pending, was also turned down on July 29th. This critically important ruling and the
radical change of direction in California's education policy for limited-English children will have a prfound effect
on other states' programs and, possibly, on legislative actions.
Recommendations for Programmatic and Legislative Changes
On the national level, the U.S. Congress has taken up new legislation that may change federal
policy and regulations on bilingual education, if it is enacted. HR 3892, introduced by Representative Frank
Riggs (R. California) and approved by the Education and Workforce Committee of the U.S. House of
Represenatatives, combines the funding for bilingual education and Emergency Immigrant Education Assistance into one
block grant. These funds would be allocated directly to the states, based on the number of limited-English
students in each school district.
For the first time in thirty years, the federal government will no longer dictate the kind of program
that receives federal funding. Until now, 75% of federal funds are ear-marked for native language
instruction programs. This law would allow the major part of federal funding to be used for student services and would
promote diversity of educational options, allowing all districts to choose among a variety of teaching
approaches, according to their own local conditions. I have advocated for this change for years and
earnestly hope for the passage of HR 3892.
Changes in state legislation on bilingual education mandates should come about gradually, as so
many other educational initiatives have, following the California example. In my professional opinion, the slow
but steady trend across the country appears to be away from a heavy reliance on native-language instruction as
the one single necessary element in the education of immigrant children (and native-born) non-speakers of English.
The ideal program for limited-English students, in my experience, should focus equally and intensively
on English language literacy, and on the learning of school subjects taught in English, from the very first day
of school. For ethnic communities that demonstrate a strong desire for their children's maintenance of the
home language, schools should provide after-school or weekend opportunities--after the children have mastered
full fluency in English.
Why It Matters
For thirty years the educational establishment has, perversely, acquiesced in a policy that
segregates many children by language and ethnicity, while simultaneously proclaiming racial integration to be a
major objective of our public schools. While promoting the importance of "inclusion" in regular classrooms
for physically or mentally handicapped children, educators have agreed to the demands of ethnic activists
that language minority students should be kept out of mainstream classes for years. During a period--the 1960s
to the 1990s--in which we are receiving the greatest number of immigrants in our history, more than all
other countries in the world combined, the value of "Americanization," which earlier immigrants by the
millions accepted as a common good, is being thoroughly criticized in our schools and in the media. Reversing this
negative trend is the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform appointed by
President Clinton and headed by good liberal Democrats Barbara Jordan (before her death) and Shirley Hufstedler.
The report, Becoming an American: Immigration
and Immigrant Policy, issued on October 1, 1997,
urges the President to lead a national dialogue on the Americanization of new immigrants as he is leading the
discussion on race and calls for "a new Americanization movement involving communities across the country."
The report voices the concern that in creating "one of the world's most successful multi-ethnic nations, the
United States must also reinforce the unity that comes from allegiance to common principles and values."
Two popular notions appear to have been accepted by the general public, with absolutely no
supporting proof or evidence. One is that Latino children need to be taught in Spanish to develop their
self-esteem, which will lead to high academic performance. The other is that Spanish-speaking children cannot
learn English for mastery of school subjects and therefore must be taught in their native language. This last is
racist and as demeaning as the prevailing idea at the turn of the century that southern European immigrants
were genetically inferior, or the declaration of the Oakland School Board that African-American children use
"a language that follows African language patterns and is genetically-based" and that they need "African"
methods of instruction.
Richard Rodriguez, Mexican-American writer, professor of literature, and commentator on U.
S. culture, has steadfastly warned about the damaging aspects of bilingual education for disadvantaged,
language-minority children. In an interview published in August 1997 he states:
Bilingual education advocates say it's important to teach a child in his or her family's language.
I say you can't use family language in the classroomthe very nature of the classroom requires
that you use language publicly. When the Irish nun said to me, `Speak your name loud and clear so that
all the boys and girls can hear you,' she was asking me to use language publicly, with strangers. That's
the appropriate instruction for a teacher to give.
My grandmother always told me that I was hers, that I was Mexican. That was her role.
It was not my teacher's role to tell me I was Mexican. It was my teacher's role to tell me I
was American. The notion that you go to a public institution in order to learn private information
about yourself is absurd. We used to understand that when students went to universities, they would
become cosmopolitan. They were leaving their neighborhoods. Now we have this idea that, not only do
you go to first grade to learn your family's language, but you go to a university to learn about the person
you were before you left home.
America is a country that is united not by religion or ethnicity but by a core of democratic
values expressed in our laws and by a common language. Bilingualism? Yes! Welcoming children into our society
by adding to the language they already know a full degree of competency in the common language of their
new country gives these children the very best educational opportunity. My emphasis is on the pragmatic.
Focus the education of language- minority children on what is essential for their greatest goodgaining the skills
for job and career opportunities, for economic success, for responsible citizenship, for
inclusion. Of secondary importance, and based on local desires, provide the resources for those who wish to develop full literacy
in their family language in classes outside of the school day.
All districts with limited-English students must have the right to exercise local choice in school
programs. Remove the bureaucratic pressure for native language teaching, provide the extra funding needed
for special programs, but hold the schools rigorously accountable for the academic progress of
limited-English studentsthis makes the most sense to me. If META and its allies would put their energies into
promoting what works, i.e., strategies used by schools where students are showing high achievement, and drop
their mania for forcing every school to teach in the native languagethey could do so much more good.
If this educational experiment had proven its worth, as I had hoped when I walked into my
first clasroom as a Spanish/English bilingual teacher in 1974, I would be its most vocal supporter. Such
success sadly is not the case. It is time now to give the many skillful people teaching immigrant children the freedom
to use their best talents to make crucial changes and
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2. Rosalie Pedalino Porter, "The Politics of Bilingual Education,"
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3. Amy Pyle, "80 Students Stay Out of School in Latino Boycott,"
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