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¿Habla Inglés?

As the battle lines are drawn over bilingual education, many educators are left to ponder the implications of immersion in America's schools.

by Mary Tamer
Collection of Spanish-language books (photo by Dina Konovalov)

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

What do you call someone who speaks one language?

While this may be considered a joke to some, to others it conveys an unfortunate refl ection on the prevailing attitudes toward multilingualism in a predominantly monolingual America.

Case in point: the Unz initiative, spearheaded by wealthy businessman and onetime gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, which successfully sold the notion of "English for the Children" to a majority of California voters in 1998 and significantly--and perhaps permanently--altered how nonnative speakers are taught in America's classrooms. According to the tenets of Proposition 227, bilingual education classes would become pedagogy of the past, dismantled and replaced with one-year immersion programs expected to help English-language learners (ELLs) achieve proficiency in a fraction of the time previously allotted.

Despite never setting foot in one of his state's bilingual classrooms, a fact that he did not hide, Unz and his initiative hit an American nerve that was already raw to begin with: Why weren't the multitudes of Latino kids in California's classrooms more proficient in English after three, or four, or even 10 years of bilingual education classes? Where had the American bilingual education system broken down, and who was going to fix it? And, while we're on the subject, what is the best way to teach English to nonnative speakers in the first place?

For a number of HGSE professors and graduates, there are aspects of the bilingual education discussion they will agree on: there are a multitude of issues at play in the realm of this discourse--including problems inherent with urban school systems in general--and delving into the topic is similar to peeling away the layers of an onion, both intricate and uncomfortable at the same time.

"I can only speculate," says Catherine Snow, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education, "but I suppose contributions to the hot-buttonhood of the topic include that (a) bilingual educationis one of those topics people think is simple, though it is in fact complex; (b) language education for minority children is an issue that is not unlinked to vague anxieties about immigration, about maintaining control over the discourse, and about the quality of education; and (c) that bilingualism is inherently slightly threatening to a populace that is largely monolingual and that considers learning other languages extremely difficult."

Snow, an expert on language and literacy development in children, is certainly not alone in her speculative views. In a time when armed vigilantes patrol America's borders to prevent illegal immigration, when students are suspended for speaking their native language in a bathroom stall, and when school committee meetings to discuss the placement of a bilingual charter school denigrate into shouting sessions that end with arrests instead of resolutions, has the issue of bilingual education become the latest outward sign of xenophobia in a post-9/11 world?

The United States is the most monolingual country in the world," says Danielle Carrigo, Ed.M.'95, Ed.D.'00, director of English Language Programs for the Worcester (Massachusetts) Public Schools, "and people are terrifi ed to hear people speaking other languages. In Europe, people are used to hearing other languages, many different languages…but in the United States, the attitude is English is our language and everyone should speak it. I think that is the reason why we have this debate. If you are bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual…there is cultural bias at play."

Whether it was the backlash of cultural bias or the resolve of a concerned citizenry, Proposition 227 steamrolled its way to success in California on June 2, 1998, bankrolled by Unz and backed by native and nonnative speakers alike to the tune of 61 percent of voters, giving present-day credence to a statement made by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland more than 30 years ago: "America is not a melting pot. It is a sizzling cauldron."

Unz and His Initiative

Students at the Amigos School in CambridgeThe success of the Unz initiative did not come as a surprise to many in the fields of education, language, and literacy.

Rich, well-educated but not an educator, outspoken, and successful, Ron Unz proved himself to be a master of public relations as he told people of all ethnicities and backgrounds what they wanted to hear: your schools are failing to teach your children proper English skills, and here's what we can do to fix them. The single-mindedness of his complex proposal had been boiled down to a simplistic, easily understood message: bilingual education in California was a failure, and dismantling the old model was essential to make way for a quicker, year-long immersion solution for the betterment of teachers and students alike. Whether or not the 12-month solution would work in practice, however, remained to be seen.

As Unz wrote in the Los Angeles Times in October 1997 to market his plan, "Too often, young immigrant children are taught little or no English--in Los Angeles, only 30 minutes a day, according to the school district's longstanding bilingual master plan.…Hundreds of thousands of these American schoolchildren spend years being taught grammar, reading, writing, and all other academic subjects in their own 'native' language--almost always Spanish--while receiving just tiny doses of instruction in English, taught as a foreign language.…Of the 1.3 million California schoolchildren--a quarter of our state's total public school enrollment--who begin each year classified as not knowing English, only about 5 percent learn English by year's end, implying an annual failure rate of 95 percent for existing programs."

While Unz was often accused by detractors of inflating or misusing statistics to illustrate his points, the overwhelming number of voters in favor of his measure--which, in addition to California, was also placed on the ballot in Arizona, Colorado, and Massachusetts--proved that the majority agreed with his main raison d'être that bilingual education as we knew it was not working well enough, if at all.

"The research is clear," says Snow, "that bilingual education for Spanish-speaking kids is somewhat better…if it has a whole long list of characteristics that it usually doesn't have…. Even those who are rabid supporters of the principals of bilingual education have to concede that it is not a practical approach for all language minority children."

Claire White, Ed.M.'99, Ed.D.'05, once a student of Snow's and subsequently a member of the Massachusetts Department of Education's Office of Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement, acknowledges that the Unz initiative was embraced by voters for many different reasons, not the least of which included "a brilliant campaign strategy" and "the endearing title: 'English for the Children.'"

"How can you vote against a sentiment like that?" asks White. "It was also understandable for immigrant parents to vote for the initiative as their children were not being served well by many bilingual programs. Of course, one can say the same thing about the education of urban minority children in U.S. public schools." White points out that children from immigrant families are often dependent on schools for their English instruction, and many teachers of LEP [limited English proficiency] children lack the knowledge for building the necessary language base for these kids. "Teachers of ELLs often have no training in second-language acquisition," she says, "and don't know how to shelter content or make the curriculum accessible to second-language learners.

"So who's at fault? Of course we all are. We live in a country blind to the benefits of bilingualism; we live in a state that haphazardly metes out resources for education; we have teacher preparation programs that fail to train future practitioners in how to provide quality and informed teaching to the most vulnerable of children, and we shirk our responsibility as citizens and educators by blaming poor, uneducated, immigrant parents for their children's underachievement."

White is not alone in her thinking, and many in the fields of language and literacy are concerned about the messages sent to LEP and ELL students and their families via initiatives such as Proposition 227 and its subsequent off shoots.

"Without bilingual education, it is only the middle class people who will survive. Without bilingual education, many of the immigrants who come into the public schools will drop out. They will not be able to tolerate the stress that comes from being in a room where no one understands them.""Certainly, [the Unz initiative] sends a message that their native languages are not valued and that English monolingualism is the desired outcome for themselves as individuals and for society as a whole," says Liz Howard, Ed.D.'03, an assistant professor at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut and a former senior research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). "In addition, it sends a message that the clock is ticking, that they are under a lot of pressure to learn English to high enough levels to succeed academically in just one year, and that further supports will not be available to them."

"Language is an important part of identity," said Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum at a February 10, 2006, public forum on race and education at Simmons College. "If you have grown up as a bilingual person…and your school or your government says you must abandon your native language, [it] is clearly problematic."

With the dropout rates of ELL and LEP students already higher than that of their native-speaking counterparts, as are the rates of their wrongful reassignment to special education classes--an unfortunate reality viewed as yet another form of backlash toward nonnative speakers--some in the bilingual education world wonder how the push toward one-year immersion programs will further hinder the lives of students already on the educational brink.

"The people who are making the decisions don't have the data that would have countered the Unz initiative," says Graciela Hopkins, Ed.M.'89, Ed.D.'93, a native of Peru who has spent the past nine years as head of an early learning center in Brighton, Massachusetts, where 60 to 70 percent of the students are Englishlanguage learners. "Without bilingual education, it is only the middle class people who will survive. Without bilingual education, many of the immigrants who come into the public schools will drop out. They will not be able to tolerate the stress that comes from being in a room where no one understands them."

The Effects of Immersion

Less than two years after Proposition 227 passed in California, Unz sang the praises of his eff orts by citing an average increase of 40 percent in the state's mean percentile test scores among more than 1 million immigrant students.

In 2001, during what was described by the Harvard Gazette as a "heated debate" between Unz and Snow in an HGSE Askwith Forum on this topic, Snow countered that Unz's badge of success via the increased test scores did not measure outcomes that were "of long-term relevance for English-language learners."

"There were multiple reform eff orts undertaken in California that year," said Snow more recently. "And test scores also rose in districts for English-only kids. Whether test scores rose or fell in the year after the initiative…it would be hard to make the case that things in California are massively worse or any better."

This view is echoed in the results of a recent state-mandated study examining the eff ectiveness of Proposition 227. "We've looked at the available data extensively over the past five years, and we don't find any compelling evidence for the premise underpinning 227: that a major switch to English immersion would be a panacea for English learners," said one of the study's authors, Amy Merickel, in a San Francisco Chronicle article on the report.

While Snow doesn't disapprove of immersion per se, she considers herself "a strong proponent of the value of native-language literacy instruction and a strong proponent of the need for very high-quality and well-adapted instruction within immersion programs if they are to work well for young children."

"Unz proposed 'structured English immersion' but no one knows exactly what that means," says Snow. "Immersion is a term first used in Canada for programs in which French-speaking teachers would use French only in classes full of English-speaking children, and kids spoke English but were responded to in French. These programs were seen as successful and popular, and they filled a social and political need, so that's the traditional definition of immersion. The problem is, when these programs were introduced in the United States, attention was not paid to the pedagogy needed.

"The best way to increase fluency and literacy of ELL students in English is by providing them with qualified teachers and quality instruction regardless of programmatic decision.""Also, the kids learning French were from middle-class families, and most of the kids in immersion programs in the United States are from uneducated, impoverished families, so these kids are at a greater risk of literacy problems…. There are so many reasons why immersion doesn't work among all populations…and you can't find structured English-immersion pedagogy out there."

"English immersion and bilingual education are essentially labels," adds White. "There are great bilingual programs and great immersion programs in Massachusetts. There are also terrible bilingual programs and truly awful immersion programs. The best way to increase fluency and literacy of ELL students in English is by providing them with qualified teachers and quality instruction regardless of programmatic decision."

For those in the trenches overseeing programs that serve populations of LEP and ELL students, immersion-as defined by Unz-is truly submersion, they say, when nonnative speakers are placed in short-term English monolingual programs that do not utilize the benefi ts of whatever literacy or fluency they have already acquired in their native language.

"It is a subtractive, remedial approach rather than an additive, enrichment-oriented approach," says Howard. "True immersion programs provide a combination of native-language instruction and sheltered instruction through the second language for a period of several years and result in bilingualism, biliteracy, and crosscultural competence in addition to high-level academic achievement. One year is defi nitely not enough time for most children to develop high levels of academic English and grade-level literacy skills. Research indicates that it generally takes from four to nine years for academic English to fully develop."

For Nonie Lesaux, a native of Canada and an assistant professor at HGSE, her own ground-breaking research on how children who are English-language learners learn to read-at comparable or even higher levels than their native-speaking peers-adds another interesting dynamic to the ongoing discourse.

Lesaux spent two years tracking 1,000 ELL and native-speaking students in English-only classrooms from kindergarten to grade two. The results, coauthored in Canada in 2003, surprised both Lesaux and her research partners by showing that the nonnative speakers had acquired reading skills that were on par with, or exceeding, their natives-peaking peers by the end of the 24- month time period.

"The work that I do is really not about bilingual education," says Lesaux, "but about how reading develops in this ELL population, and what is typical and what is not typical..Because reading is so language-based, we were surprised at how quickly the nonnative speakers were able to catch up to their native-speaking peers..If I am a typically developing ELL student, I have a heightened awareness by having two languages.and [realize] there are advantages to being bilingual if I have the chance to develop both languages over time."

"There is a psycholinguistic mechanism," says Snow, "by which bilingual education can help the second language."

Enter the two-way immersion program, a mode of bilingual education that still exists in the three states where the Unz initiative has passed.

Students at the Amigos School in Cambridge"We can use the two-way immersion model," says Carrigo, "in which children spend half their day with a teacher who speaks only the target or native language to them, and then half their day with a teacher who speaks only English to them. If it is done well, and you design a program for K-12, everyone ends up multilingual."

"I believe that, at least in California, there are now more two-way programs than there were before the initiative," says Howard, "in part because some programs that were previously other models switched to two-way immersion because [it was seen] as a more viable alternative and in part simply because of the continued documented success of the programs and the interest on the part of communities to establish new programs."

"Monolingualism can be cured," says Carrigo. "Every school in this nation should have a two-way program; it is the best way to learn English-and to teach it."

As the discourse over bilingual education continues, and as cities and states wrestle with questions regarding best practices to employ for their own school systems, some universal insights become clear: qualified and well-trained teachers are needed for whatever programs are put in place for ELL and LEP students; America may need to rethink its unofficial stance on monolingualism; and the ongoing discussion about this topic is not likely to end anytime soon.

"I'd like to say that the debate is frequently too narrow," says Howard, "focusing only on methods for achieving English acquisition as quickly as possible. The more important goal is long-term academic achievement (i.e., high school graduation and college attendance). Moreover, the fact that bilingualism, biliteracy, and crosscultural competence are huge assets at both the individual and societal levels is largely ignored in the debate, and this is a big mistake. We're squandering our linguistic and cultural resources by not doing more to help our immigrant students preserve and develop their native-language skills as they acquire English."

"My feeling about the Unz initiative is that it continues to detract from the real issues at hand," says Lesaux, "and it detracts from the really constructive conversations that need to take place and should be taking place about building and training teachers to support ELLs, and creating policies that are more pragmatic and concrete versus ideological."


The photos accompanying this feature were taken at the Amigos School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which implements a Spanish/English dual-language immersion approach, serving native speakers of English and of Spanish, kindergarten through grade eight. Amigos partners with HGSE on Reading Buddies, a program which pairs HGSE staff, student, and faculty volunteers and other Harvard affiliates with second graders, to read and share conversation with students every other week in a one-on-one setting. All photos by Dina Konovalov, A Dream Picture.


About the Article

A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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