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The bilingual education debate

Four responses to The Times' recent Op-Eds on bilingual education in American schools.

July 17, 2010

Editor's note: This edition of Blowback offers four responses to the package of three Op-Eds about bilingual education that The Times ran on July 11. The opinion pieces — "The Spanish road to English" by Bruce Fuller, "A skill, not a weakness" by Laurie Olsen and Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, and "Quality Counts" by Alice Callaghan — generated a lot of feedback from readers, and much of the "Letters to the editor" section on July 17 was devoted to it. The following are a sample of the submissions that were too long to print.

By Ana Garza

The piece by Alice Callaghan should also have been titled "Blurred Vision." She argues that children need complex and rich language to succeed in school, yet she does not endorse using the primary language as a vehicle considering that is the language spoken by the parents and the community.

Studies have shown that the quality of language in the home drops when limited-English-speaking parents are unwisely encouraged to use English. Additionally, it places everyone at a disadvantage when parents are unable to assist with homework in a language that they do not speak. It would be better to follow the advice of the researchers and professors (such as Harvard's Catherine Snow) who bring research and data to the table when they endorse the benefits of native-language support for English learners. It really is easier to learn to read in a language you speak.

Though English may be the lingua franca of the world today, in this globalized era where most of the world is bilingual, maybe we should rethink Proposition 227. Given the research that supports the cognitive benefits of fluent childhood bilingualism, we should advocate that all of our children be given the enrichment of bilingual instruction in the elementary years.

Middle-class parents across the country have been slowly initiating bilingual programs for enrichment in many languages, the most popular today being Chinese. And here we are denying it to poor English learners who need it for their academic survival. It really is not about what approach works the best; it is more about anti-immigrant sentiment.

Ana Garza is a professor at Cal State Fullerton specializing in multicultural education and instruction in two languages.

By Joseph Staub

Bruce Fuller's opinion piece exemplifies some of the muddled thinking out there about public K-12 education. There is no question Fuller is a highly credentialed man. He has a doctorate from Stanford, is a noted author and a senior faculty member at UC Berkeley, has been on the faculty at Harvard and has worked with such organizations as the State Department, the World Bank and the California governor's office.

It's too bad none of this vast experience includes actually being a public school teacher, or being responsible for the very types of students about whom he's writing. Fuller has obviously spent his long career in the rarified atmospheres of education research and politics, which bear about as much resemblance to public school teaching as sports shows do to playing the game. He speaks in the politically correct and necessarily vague code of the insulated observer, not the engaged participant, and so one must doubt the usefulness of his opinions on public education in general and English instruction in particular. His article is rife with clues to such doubt.

For instance, Fuller tips his hand early on when he describes the city of Bell as "diverse." He has obviously not spent any time in that city, or he would know it's 90% Latino. Even if we avoid making the all-too-common mistake of lumping all Latinos together as the same culture, how is 90% of anything diverse? If Bell were 90% Anglo, would he still call it diverse? The code here is: "diverse" means "non-English-speaking." Such vagueness informs nothing and obscures the truth.

Next, Fuller does something that those with political agendas do quite often: They'll pose a question and suggest the answer in the same breath, but fail to recognize it because it isn't the one they were looking for. He says that "in neighborhoods where only Spanish is heard" schools "are failing to boost English proficiency." See what I mean? Can't boost what isn't there in the first place. It isn't rocket science to point out that rocket boosters need a rocket to boost.

One doesn't need to be an education researcher to figure out the problem, only an historian. Waves of immigrants have come to this country and learned English. My grandparents — German-speaking New Yorkers and Italian-speaking Philadelphians — told their children: "You're an American now. Speak English." And they did. Countless immigrants did likewise with the same limited resources that today's immigrants claim — or, more accurately, that Fuller claims for them — and they did it while honoring the culture and language they brought with them.

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