September 21, 1997
The debate over bilingual education--when students learn basic skills in their native language-- is raging at the federal and local levels. Proponents call it necessary; forty percent of students across the country who have difficulty speaking English never complete high school. Opponents call it expensive and potentially isolating for students. After a background report by Betty Ann Bowser, Margaret Warner hears from both sides. You can also participate in an Online Forum on this controversial issue.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
September 29, 1997
Join an Online forum on bilingual education.
January 23, 1997
The Ebonics debate moves to the US Senate.
January 9, 1997:
A report on the disparity between minorty and causasian children's literacy rates.
February 11, 1997:
The US Congress debates whether to ban the children of illegal immigrants from the public education system.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of education.
Ron Unz's "English for the Children"
The National Association for Bilingual Education.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the debate over bilingual education. We begin with this report by Betty Ann Bowser.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like millions of second graders, Antonio Pena is learning to read. His vocabulary is improving and his handwriting is growing steadier, but his education still isn't typical because he's doing it all in Spanish. Pena is one of a growing number of American students who learn basic skills in their native languages before adding English. It's called bilingual education. Pena's teacher, Claudia Beck, says it's important for him to learn the basics in Spanish.
CLAUDIA BECK, Teacher: Antonio, he knows a lot of English, he understands a lot of English, but still--he's still learning concepts in his language, in his native language, you know, concepts in science, you know, life cycles of animals--they're all concepts. And once we have that idea in our mind then we can attach vocabulary to it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since 1974, all schools that accept federal funding must provide special language programs to students like Pena. But the number of students in these programs has grown so dramatically that many districts are strapped for bilingual teachers and texts. Across America, more than 2.8 million public school students do not speak fluent English. That number has soared 100 percent in the past decade. With the explosive growth has come disappointing statistics. Nationally, 40 percent of students who have difficulty speaking English never complete high school. Education Professor Rowland Tharp says the problem has forced many districts to take a closer look at their bilingual programs.
PROFESSOR ROWLAND THARP: It's happen everywhere and it's being faced by school boards, at sometimes at the state level; it's being re-examined as to what kind of programs should be prescribed, or what should be the range of options. There's a great deal of re-examination going on.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Antonio Pena's school in Denver, there's a heated debate over the best way to teach bilingual children. This month, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights charged that Denver's school district violated federal law by providing an inadequate education for students with limited English skills. The federal reprimand came as Denver proposed to strengthen test scores with a new get-tough program: three years and you're out of bilingual class. Irv Moskowitz, whose own parents had to learn English when they emigrated to the United States, is the superintendent of Denver Schools.
IRV MOSKOWITZ, Superintendent, Denver Schools: What we're saying is that three years ought to be that serious time for check. Let's get a snapshot, a profile of where is this kid at this point. This or this young person is in there for three straight years. What has happened?
Students becoming isolated by bilingual classes?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Denver officials say too many students have been isolated in bilingual classes.
IRV MOSKOWITZ: Let's talk about a sixteen, seventeen-year-old, one who's about to graduate, and this kid has had plenty of this bilingual program, never really been in trouble, you know, not been absent a lot, has some D's and some C's and some B's but mostly C's, and really young Mister Average and about to graduate from school, really having a hard time with English; can speak it; can read it; but really not on top of it. Where is this kid going? What's in store for this youngster?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Denver, the dropout rate for Hispanics is 50 percent--far higher than any other ethnic group. Defenders of bilingual programs say any cutbacks will only encourage more Spanish-speaking students to quit school. Hispanic activist Patricio Cordova is worried about the new plan.
PATRICIO CORDOVA, Activist: Thirty percent of all Latino students are in the bilingual program. If you look at Latino students in general, if we are about half of the population and if our graduation rate is less than 50 percent, then if you project that subset ten or twenty years down the road, we have 1/4 of that segment of the population which does not have a high school education and statistics show that for people 18 years and over with less than a high school education, the average yearly earnings are only about $6,000 or $500 per month. Moreover, 82 percent of all prisoners in this country are high school dropouts, et cetera, et cetera. So the implications are enormous.
TEACHER: (Screaming) In this district the board and the administration has sabotaged bilingual education religiously, religiously! (applause)
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In an emotional public hearing bilingual supporters said the proposed time limits will turn kids into victims.
PARENT: (speaking through interpreter) If their rights as bilingual individuals are limited, they will end up adding them to the lines on the streets. Is this what you want, to see Hispanics as bad statistics?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's what school board member Rita Montero used to think. An original supporter of bilingual education, Montero enrolled her own son in the program but abruptly pulled him out after being disappointed in his second grade studies.
RITA MONTERO, Parent: He was bringing home pieces of paper that he had written the number one across the sheet of the paper; number two across the sheet of paper. And t his child was adding three digit numbers, he was doing a little bit of fractions, a little bit of multiplication, and so to be writing the number one across a sheet of paper was just not doing it. So I said to the teacher this is it; I want him to be taken out and put in an English-speaking class.
Learning your language, learning your culture.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But many parents want their children to maintain Spanish, so they can be proud of their cultural heritage. Montero says she too struggled with the issue.
RITA MONTERO: I had to think--what is more important to me--to keep my child in a program where perhaps he'll learn some Spanish and that'll make me happy or do I want my child to be able to come out of public education with the ability to compete for scholarships, to be able to go to the college of his choice?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Academic success is exactly what bilingual educators say they strive for. Kathy Escamilla, who instructs bilingual teachers, says three years isn't enough time.
KATHY ESCAMILLA: There's absolutely no evidence that a person can learn a second language in three years. We have, you know, 500 studies that tell us that it takes from at least five to seven years to become orally proficient in a second language and by the seventh year, your reading and writing in the second language can approach that of a native English speaker.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Antonio Pena's mother, Maria, agrees. Maria Pena says her children have thrived in their bilingual classes and their Spanish instruction allows her to help with their learning at home, and educators all agree that support at home is essential. Maria's daughter, Denise, has been in bilingual programs for six years. Pena says her daughter is ready to move on but Antonio is just completing his third year and his mother says he's a long way from joining the English mainstream.
MARIA PENA: (speaking through interpreter) Antonio is not ready to move to English only because his foundation in Spanish is not yet good.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Superintendent Moskowitz is not convinced. He says there's more and more conflicting evidence of how long it takes to move into English-only classes.
IRV MOSKOWITZ: Usually you can go into research in bilingual education and find backing for almost any theory you'd like to espouse. Then it gets quoted as biblical. In the meantime, right on the other side is someone who says something 180 degrees different in a different way.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Escamilla disagrees.
KATHY ESCAMILLA: The research isn't controversial, and it isn't inconclusive. There is very clear evidence that the kids who have a strong foundation in their native language, it takes five to seven years to become proficient in English, and those are the kids who are likely to do well in school.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Denver officials say those who do not learn in three years will get individual attention. But some say the problem is not the length of time spent in bilingual; it's the fact that so many bilingual teachers aren't properly prepared.
An inability to educate kids, even in their native language.
RITA MONTERO: When you have an inability to educate kids, even in their own language, because you have staff that's unqualified, how are we then going to educate kid and turn them out to be literate in two languages when we don't have enough qualified staff to do it?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Denver, officials say they are beefing up the quality of the program by hiring more qualified teachers. But Professor Tharp says the overall record is spotty because states often ignore and under-fund programs.
PROFESSOR ROWLAND THARP: Everybody's trying to scurry off and do bilingual education without knowing how to do it or what it is or any agreement about what it's done, so everybody's doing something and everybody's saying we're doing bilingual education, and then go out and measure it and to the big surprise, doesn't really seem to be doing very much better than not doing bilingual education.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: His research center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is searching for the nation's most successful bilingual program. Meanwhile, in Denver, officials hope they can enact their new plan when students return to school this fall.
Margaret Warner speaks with Ron Unz and James Lyons.
JIM LEHRER: More now and to Margaret Warner. She recorded this discussion recently.
MARGARET WARNER: Nationally, the controversy over bilingual education has boiled down to an even starker question, whether to preserve it at all. About 6 percent of the nation's school population--some 3.1 million children--are enrolled in some sort of bilingual education. The federal government spends $178 million to support bilingual programs, a fraction of the billions spent on bilingual education by states and localities. But several bills have been introduced in this Congress to abolish or drastically curtail federal support for bilingual education, and in California, a group called English for the Children is collecting signatures for a ballot referendum in next year's election. It would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English. With us now are Ron Unz, chairman of the English for the Children, the committee sponsoring the California ballot initiative, and James Lyons, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education. Mr. Unz, why do you believe that bilingual education should be scrapped?
RON UNZ, Anti-Bilingual Education Activist: Well, the overwhelming practical evidence is that bilingual education has failed on every large scale case that's been tried in the United States, in particular in California. The origins of this initiative was the case last year of a lot of immigrant Latino parents in downtown LA, who had to begin a public boycott of their local elementary school to try to force the school to give their children the right to be taught English, which the school was denying. And I think that really opened my eyes to the current state of the program in California, where the statistics are dreadful.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Lyons.
JAMES LYONS, National Association for Bilingual Education: It is not the case that bilingual education is failing children. There are poor bilingual education programs, just as there are poor programs of every type in our schools today. But bilingual education has made it possible for children to have continuous development in their native language, while they're in the process of learning English, something that doesn't happen overnight, and it's made it possible for children to learn math and science at a rate equal to English-speaking children while they're in the process of acquiring English.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Unz, what about that point--and we saw in the taped piece too--that for these children who don't speak English well they will fall behind in the basic subjects if they can't be taught those in Spanish, or whatever language? I shouldn't say just Spanish, but whatever their family's language is.
RON UNZ: That's a very reasonable point. And to the extent that we're talking about older children, 14 or 15 year olds who come to the United States, don't know any English and are put in the public schools I think a very reasonable case can be made for bilingual education. I don't know if it's correct, but at least you can make a case for it. But most of the children we're talking about enter California or America public schools when they're five or six or seven. At the age of five years old, the only academic subjects a child is really doing is drawing with crayons or cutting and, you know, with paper and that type of thing. And at that age children can learn another language so quickly and easy that the only reasonable thing to do is to put them in a program where they're taught English as rapidly as possible and then put into the mainstream classes with the other children so they can move forward academically.
MARGARET WARNER: There is something to that point, isn't there, Mr. Lyons, that very young children do absorb languages very quickly?
JAMES LYONS: They absorb certain facets of language very quickly. They learn to speak in an unaccented form like a native English speaker. But the research shows that actually adults are much more efficient and quicker language learners than children because they're working from a broader linguistic base, a greater conceptual base. I really take objection to what Mr. Unz is saying; that children at the age of five, six, and seven are only coloring and cutting out paper. That isn't going to lead to the high standards.
When I go into elementary schools, first, second, and third grade, I see schools that are focused on teaching literacy skills, certainly by the third grade, that's a national goal. I see schools that are teaching children about life around them. The point of the matter is, is that bilingual education provides children with continuous development in an intelligible way while they're in the process of acquiring a language.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me stay with you for a minute, Mr. Lyons. Let me just ask you something. I think and polls show that many Americans say if a child comes here from another country, they can certainly understand why this is necessary. But I think a majority of students in bilingual ed--the younger students--were all born in the U.S..
Generations of limited English proficiency.
JAMES LYONS: That's absolutely correct. A majority still--just the bare majority of the children who are limited English proficient--and actually only about a third of those children ever received bilingual education programming. But those children are native born. One of the reasons that they are limited English proficient is their parents, who were non-English language background people, didn't succeed in the English only programs, which were the only programs in this country prior to the period that we're talking about today.
MARGARET WARNER: What about that point, Mr. Unz?
RON UNZ: Well, most of these parents actually are immigrants, themselves. In other words, they came here five or ten or fifteen years ago, and their children either were born here, or their children came with them at a very young age. So, in other words, the children, themselves, are often native born, but the parents are almost always first generation immigrants.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me stay with you for a minute. You called this a failed system. What is your definition of success or failure?
RON UNZ: Well, let's look at the numbers in California--and they really are horrifying. A quarter of all the children in California public schools are classified as not knowing English, limited English proficiency. Of the ones who don't know English in any given year only 5 or 6 percent learn English. Since the goal of the system, obviously, should be make sure that these children learn English, we're talking about a system with an annual failure rate of 95 percent. Now, when we're talking about little children, everybody I know who's come here from other countries--I work in Silicon Valley--I'm in the software business--many of my friends are foreign immigrants. They came here when they were a variety of different ages. All of them agree that little children or even young teenagers can learn another language quickly, though only 5 percent of these children in California are learning English each year. And that's what I define as failure.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, either that definition of success, which is that it's learning English, is that the purpose of bilingual education? And secondly, do you agree that it's not doing the job?
JAMES LYONS: Well, the first point is I think we need a broader definition than simply learning English. The child who learns English but doesn't learn any of the other academic subjects taught in school is not going to succeed. But even if we use the restricted definition that Mr. Unz is proposing of learning English--and he's basing this on the "re-designation rates" of children who are re-designated annually as fully English proficient, as opposed to limited English proficient--it isn't bilingual education that's to blame. One third of the children in California who are limited English proficient are receiving bilingual education. Two thirds are not. And if you compare the re-designation rates of schools that provide a lot of bilingual education versus the English only kind of programs that Mr. Unz wants, you find the schools that are using native language as the medium of instruction do much better.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me stay with you, Mr. Lyons, for a minute, and ask you about something that came up in Betty Ann's taped piece, which is that some parents who want the children in bilingual ed actually say they wanted in part to maintain the family's original language. Is that a purpose of bilingual education, as well as a transition to English? Do you think it's also to maintain a kind of dual cultural identity?
JAMES LYONS: I think the notion of maintaining the ability to communicate in the family is terribly important. It's not the primary objective. I remember a television producer, in fact, who told me her life story, the fact that she brought home a note when she was five years old from the kindergarten teacher saying, please, do not let Juliet speak Italian anymore, she told me that that was--her grandmother lived with her family, lived in the same home--that that was the very last day, she said, that "I ever spoke to my grandmother. And it was the last day that my grandmother ever spoke to me. And my grandmother lived in the house with my family for seven years from that point forward." That isn't what we want in America. I think we want families that can communicate across generations, grandparents and grandchildren.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Unz, do you think that's a proper role for public education, to help these children remain essentially in linguistic contact with their families?
"Family culture, family tradition and family language are the responsibility of the family."
RON UNZ: I think family culture, family tradition, and family language are the responsibility of the family. They should be the ones making the decision as to how much or how little of these cultural traditions should they maintain. The responsibility of the American public education system is to give young children the tools they need to become assimilated, productive members of society. And one of the most important tools is a knowledge of reading and writing and speaking English.
Right now hundreds of thousands of the children in California and around the United States are leaving the public schools illiterate in English because of the schools' refusal to teach them English at a young age. Think about what it means when a child leaves the public schools as a teenager or as a graduate not knowing how to read or write English at anything more than a second or third grade level. They can never get a job. They can never be successful. And that's where a lot of the problems like crime and gangs come from because the schools are failing in their responsibility because of the completely mis-perceived, mis-structured educational theory which just doesn't work in practice.
MARGARET WARNER: And how do you answer that basic question, which that superintendent in Betty Ann's piece also raised, these kids leave school, they can't compete in an English environment?
JAMES LYONS: And many of those children not only have been in bilingual education; they are English language background children. We have children who are graduating today after 13 years in public schooling unable to read, unable to write. Is bilingual education to blame? No, it's not. It can't be, because these children were never in a bilingual education program, and, in fact, they're native English speakers. I think we're confusing what is the cause of the problem. We have poor schools throughout this country in virtually every state of the union. Bilingual education are part of the poor schools in some places; in other places they're allowing children to achieve everything that they need to achieve and to excel, go on to college.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Jim Lyons and Ron Unz, thank you both very much.
JAMES LYONS: Thank you.