Banishing Bilingualism

Banishing Bilingualism

Within the next decade, 30-40 percent of current public school teachers in the United States will retire, opening up more than 700,000 teaching positions.


Within the next decade, 30-40 percent of current public school teachers in the United States will retire, opening up more than 700,000 teaching positions. This provides a great opportunity to develop energized young teachers who could revitalize public education. But it could also be an opening to mold a new generation of teachers who know only increasingly rigid standards, high-stakes testing, inflexible Eurocentric curriculum and English-only learning.

In California, the State Board of Education has chosen the latter path. Through directives, legislation and the redefinition of teacher credential programs, the word “bilingual” has been banished from the vocabulary of schooling in California, replaced by “English-language learning.” Instruction in students’ native language is against the law. Instead, non-English-speaking students are tested in English, which frequently guarantees their failure, since many do not even understand the instructions.

These state mandates ignore the most significant language-acquisition research findings of the past twenty years: Students learn a second language best when they can build academically upon their first language. The policies also ignore a 1998 report of student achievement (as measured in standardized test scores) that showed that English-language learners enrolled in bilingual programs in San Francisco and San Jose schools outperformed native-born English speakers in all content areas. These programs are now at risk of being dismantled in favor of a uniform system that suppresses many children’s first language.

In an attempt to remake a teaching force in California that lacks any memory of bilingual education and any skill in teaching to the strengths of non-English-speaking students, the board of education has decided to end the granting of the two major teaching credentials–CLAD (Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development) and BCLAD (Bilingual Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development). These credentials meant that prospective teachers get training in the theory and practice of teaching bilingual children, respecting the use of students’ home language and culture while helping ease their transition into English-language schooling. By the end of 2003, when 45 percent of the students in California public schools will be living in non-English-speaking homes, these credentials will be phased out.

The board has gone so far as to expunge the words “bilingual” and “culture” from its official literature. This strategy is accompanied by a strict emphasis on phonics teaching, high-stakes testing and centralized control over the content of learning through state-adopted textbooks and highly specific statewide content standards.

The direction of today’s education policy in California largely derives from the English for the Children initiative passed in 1998, sponsored by millionaire conservative Ron Unz and upheld by the courts. But this movement is not limited to California. Within the last two years, Unz backed a second anti-bilingual initiative (Proposition 203), which passed in Arizona, and supported similar measures on the November election in Massachusetts and Colorado. Results were mixed: Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved their anti-bilingual measure, while Colorado voters rejected theirs, upholding the right to linguistic diversity.

English Only is spreading to the federal level as well. Last January, the Bilingual Education Act was killed by the Bush Administration. This law, officially Title VII of the 1968 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was replaced by a provision called No Child Left Behind, which requires that funds be used only for the explicit acquisition of English. The former Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs is now the Office of English Language Acquisition. Essentially, the words “bilingual education” have been excised from the federal government’s lexicon.

In California and other English-Only states, these efforts mean that new teachers will not be equipped to understand the majority of their students linguistically, culturally or academically. In extreme cases, teachers will be punished and possibly fined for reaching out to children in their own languages. Teachers’ ability to forge bonds with their bilingual students will be crippled by these restraints. Children’s ability to bridge the knowledge from home with learning at school will be impaired. School failure will be perpetuated on an institutional basis. It is essential that we resist these escalating attacks on multiculturalism and linguistic diversity, which are disingenuously conducted in the name of children’s best interests. The tragedy, and irony, is that effective bilingual programs, which insure that all children have a chance to succeed, are the likely casualties of this assault.

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