The bilingual education debate

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.

In all fairness, Fuller does say that language isolation is the culprit. But of course, his answer is to “advance civic spaces that nurture [a] sense of belonging, from inventive schools to bilingual town squares.” Except for the buzzword of “inventive” schools, the rest is typical academic fluff. That might work in whatever paper he’s preparing to publish, but it doesn’t help schools one bit with the English-learner issue.

Now, take a look at Fuller’s suggested solutions: “teachers with rich pedagogical skills and deep cultural knowledge.” Ah, the old “cultural relevance” dodge. Notice how he carefully camouflages it by also going on about high expectations and motivating activities — stuff all good teachers know anyway, but the mentioning of which makes people feel good.

Stripped of that, though, it’s really a complaint about how few teachers can “advance rich oral language in both languages” and have “cross-cultural awareness.” What he really means is that we need more Latino teachers, which he should just come out and say. He won’t, though, because that opens up the must-look-like-me-to-teach-me issue to real debate. And the inevitable question of whether white, English-speaking children need white, English-speaking teachers is too horrible for him to imagine. He’d rather focus on “building neighborhoods of many tongues.” Like Bell?

Finally, Fuller says: “Yes, we need artful teachers who hammer on English literacy. But, more deeply…" This is where he goes off the rails of reality, with that “but.” (And what does “more deeply” mean, anyway?) Artful teachers who hammer on English literacy are where you start, regardless of their ethnicity. That’s what schools should do. The public and its leaders should promote English in neighborhoods and “town squares” as the key to political and economic advancement. Academics like Fuller would do well to participate in that advancement by being realistic, talking plainly and spending less time in an ivory tower and more on an asphalt playground.

Joseph Staub is a teacher and writer in Los Angeles.

By Jon Lee

I am a 27-year-old student, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, with English as my first language and the only one I can speak fluently. My parents chose not to speak to me in their native tongue, fearing that, as a child, it would hinder my ability to assimilate into American culture.

I’ve done well in school for the most part; I graduated with a bachelors in international studies, a 3.6 GPA and the ability to speak conversational-level Spanish. I have traveled to various places around the globe and have many friends and acquaintances who have done the same.

Throughout that process I have come across many people, ranging from Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians and South Pacific Islanders. The majority of these spoke at least two languages: one from their home country, and the other English. It seems that we are the only ones in the global community that view bilingualism as a weakness in early education.

In retrospect, I feel that any hardships I might have suffered in my childhood from having to learn English as a second language have been well worth it in the end. Bilingual-supported educational systems would not only make us brighter intellectually, they would create a cultural openness at an early age for American children. Anyone who considers that a negative needs to reflect on the current globalized world. Language is knowledge, so instead of trying to cut it out, why not cultivate it? We are a melting pot, so why not take advantage of that?

Americans should be the most culturally understanding nation, so why are we perceived to be the opposite in the eyes of our worldly neighbors?

Jon Lee has studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Taipei, Taiwan. He will begin graduate studies at Cal State Long Beach this fall.

By Trudy Tuttle Arriaga and Jennifer Whitlock Robles

We thank the editors of The Times for devoting a full page of Sunday’s Op-Ed section to current, effective approaches for teaching English-language learners. We in the Ventura Unified School District are promoting many of these same practices, and they are paying off.

At Buena and Ventura High Schools, newly designed English courses with coaching support for teachers form the cornerstone of a more effective program. As a result, the percentage of students mastering English and academic areas has more than doubled in past five years at Ventura High.

Two Ventura elementary schools and one middle school offer dual-language programs that bring English-language learners and English-speaking students together in integrated learning communities. The first group of these students just completed ninth grade in our high schools, where they were enrolled in fourth-year Spanish courses and did well in the regular English academic program.

Also, since 2009, the district has awarded more than 150 high school graduates with multilingual recognition seals for proficiency in English and one or more additional language(s).

Our efforts are supported by several organizations, including our Board of Education, the Ventura County Office of Education and the California Department of Education, which just published a guide to research-based approaches to improving education for English learners. It is very rewarding to be a part of this statewide effort to capitalize on students’ resources, teach new skills in effective ways and build positive communities through education.

Trudy Tuttle Arriaga is superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District. Jennifer Whitlock Robles is the district’s director of bilingual education programs.