Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Bilingual Ban That Worked

In 1998, Californians voted to pass Proposition 227, the “English for the Children Act,” and dismantle the state’s bilingual-education industry. The results, according to California’s education establishment, were not supposed to look like this: button-cute Hispanic pupils at a Santa Ana elementary school boasting about their English skills to a visitor. Those same pupils cheerfully calling out to their principal on their way to lunch: “Hi, Miss Champion!” A statewide increase in English proficiency among all Hispanic students.

Instead, warned legions of educrats, eliminating bilingual education in California would demoralize Hispanic students and widen the achievement gap. Unless Hispanic children were taught in Spanish, the bilingual advocates moaned, they would be unable to learn English or to succeed in other academic subjects.

California’s electorate has been proved right: Hispanic test scores on a range of subjects have risen since Prop. 227 became law. But while the curtailment of California’s bilingual-education industry has removed a significant barrier to Hispanic assimilation, the persistence of a Hispanic academic underclass suggests the need for further reform.

The counterintuitive linguistic claims behind bilingual education were always a fig leaf covering a political agenda. The 1960s Chicano rights movement (“Chicano” refers to Mexican-Americans) asserted that the American tradition of assimilation was destroying not just Mexican-American identity but also Mexican-American students’ capacity to learn. Teaching these students in English rather than in Spanish hurt their self-esteem and pride in their culture, Chicano activists alleged: hence the high drop-out rates, poor academic performance, and gang involvement that characterized so many Mexican-American students in the Southwest. Manuel Ramirez III, currently a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that bilingual education was necessary to ensure “the academic survival of Chicano children and the political and economic strength of the Chicano community.” The role of American schools, according to this nascent ideology, became the preservation of the Spanish language and Mexican culture for Mexican-origin U.S. residents.

Novel linguistic theories arose to buttress this political platform. Children could not learn a second language well unless they were already fully literate in their native tongue, the newly minted bilingual-ed proponents argued. To teach English to a five-year-old who spoke Spanish at home, you had to instruct him in Spanish for several more years, until he had mastered Spanish grammar and spelling. “Young children are not language sponges,” asserts McGill University psychology professor Fred Genesee, defying centuries of parental observation. Even more surprisingly, the advocates suddenly discovered that the ability to learn a second language improved with age—news to every adult who has struggled through do-it-yourself language recordings.

Such ad hoc justifications rested on shaky scientific ground. Psycholinguistics research supports what generations of immigrants experienced firsthand: the younger you are when you tackle a second language, the greater your chances of achieving full proficiency. Children who learn a second language early in life may even process it in the same parts of the brain that process their first language, an advantage lost as they age.

Only one justification for bilingual education made possible sense. The bilingual theorists maintained that children should be taught academic content—physics, say, or history—in their home language, lest they fall behind their peers in their knowledge of subject matter. But this argument applied most forcefully where bilingual education has always been the rarest: in high school, where, one would hope, teachers use relatively sophisticated concepts. In the earliest grades, however, where bilingual education has always been concentrated, academic content is predominantly learning a language—how to read and write B-A-T, for example. Moreover, most Hispanic children who show up in American elementary school have subpar Spanish skills to begin with, so teaching them in Spanish does not provide a large advantage over English in conveying knowledge about language—or anything else.

The bilingual-education crusade also contained patent inequities that never seemed to trouble its advocates. If teaching a nonnative speaker in his home tongue was such a boon—if it was, as many argued, a civil right—bilingual education should have been provided to every minority-language group, not just to Hispanics, who have been almost the exclusive beneficiaries of the practice. If instructing non-English-speaking students in English was destructive, it would damage a school’s sole Pashto speaker just as much as its Hispanic majority. But minority rights, usually the proud battle cry of self-styled progressives, invariably crumpled before brute political power when it came to bilingual ed. “If it could benefit 82 percent of the kids, you don’t have to offer it to everyone,” says Robert Linquanti, a project director for the government-supported research organization WestEd.

Nor did bilingual-education proponents pause long before counterevidence. In 1965, just as the movement was getting under way in the United States, the Canadian province of Quebec decided that not enough Quebecois children were learning French. It instituted the most efficient method for overcoming that deficit: immersion. Young English-speaking students started spending their school days in all-French classes, emerging into English teaching only after having absorbed French. By all accounts, the immersion schools have been successful. And no wonder: the simple insight of immersion is that the more one practices a new language, the better one learns it. Students at America’s most prestigious language academy, the Middlebury Language Schools, pledge not to speak a word of English once the program begins, even if they are beginners in their target languages. “If you go back to speaking English, the English patterns will reassert themselves and interfere with acquisition of the new grammatical patterns,” explains Middlebury vice president Michael Geisler.

McGill professor Genesee—who opposed Prop. 227 in 1998, when he was directing the education school at the University of California at Davis—hates it when proponents of English immersion in America point to the success of French immersion in Quebec. The English-speaking Quebecois don’t risk losing English, Genesee says, since it remains the predominant Canadian tongue and is a “high-prestige language.”

Whereas if you start American Hispanics off in English, Genesee maintains, “they won’t want to speak Spanish” because it is a “stigmatized, low-prestige language.” Genesee’s argument exposes the enduring influence of Chicano political activism on academic bilingual theory. Hispanic students do risk losing their home tongue when taught in the majority language. Such linguistic oblivion has beset second- and third-generation immigrants throughout American history—not because of the relative status of their home languages but simply because of the power of language immersion and the magnetic force of the public culture. But bilingual-ed proponents know that most Americans don’t view preserving immigrants’ home tongues as a school responsibility. So they publicly promote bilingual education as a pedagogically superior way to teach Hispanics English and other academic subjects, even as they privately embrace the practice as a means for ensuring that Hispanic students preserve their Spanish.

The early Chicano activists sought the “replacement of assimilationist ideals . . . with cultural pluralism,” writes University of Houston history professor Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr. in his book Contested Policy. Bilingual education was the activists’ primary weapon in fighting assimilation because, as they rightly understood, English-language teaching is a powerful tool for encouraging assimilation. In a country as diverse as the United States, fluency in the common tongue is an essential bond among citizens, and the experience of learning it alongside classmates of different ethnic origins reinforces the message that Americans share a common culture. Bilingual-ed proponents often accuse immersion advocates of opposing multilingualism or wanting to stamp out Spanish. This is nonsense. But it is true that maintaining students’ home language for the sake of strengthened ethnic identity is no part of a school’s mandate. Its primary language duty, rather, is to ensure that citizens can understand one another and participate in democracy.

Despite its conceptual contradictions, bilingual education spread inexorably through the federal and state education bureaucracies. The National Education Association, undoubtedly whiffing a jobs bonanza for its unionized members, produced a report in 1966 arguing that teaching Hispanic children in English hurt their self-esteem and led to underachievement. In 1968, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, which provided federal funds for bilingual teaching. When not enough school districts applied for the funds, advocacy groups sued, claiming that the districts were violating Hispanic children’s civil rights. The federal Department of Education agreed, issuing rules in 1975 that penalized schools for not establishing bilingual programs for their non-English-speaking students. Though the Reagan administration cut back on several bilingual-education mandates from the Ford and Carter years, the federal bilingual bureaucracy remained firmly entrenched for decades.

In California, which contains the vast majority of the country’s so-called English learners—students from homes where a language other than English is regularly spoken—the rise of the bilingual machine was swift and decisive. The 1976 Chacon-Moscone Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act declared that bilingual education was the right of every English learner. Elementary schools had to provide native-language instruction if they enrolled a certain number of English learners; bilingual education in the lower grades became the default mode for anyone with a Hispanic surname. (Hispanics have always dominated the “English learner” category. In California, they make up 85 percent of all English learners; the next-largest language group—Vietnamese—constitutes just 2.4 percent.)

Even after Governor George Deukmejian refused to reauthorize the Chacon-Moscone bill in 1987, the bilingual establishment in Sacramento continued to enforce the law’s mandates. The state’s department of education sponsored numerous conferences and reports alleging that bilingual education was necessary for Hispanic success and showered an additional $5,000 a year on bilingual teachers. Administrators and teachers in heavily Hispanic areas often saw themselves as part of the Chicano empowerment movement. “You weren’t worthwhile if you didn’t speak Spanish,” recalls a Santa Ana teacher. “The attitude was: ‘No one should teach our kids but native language speakers.’”...

Much more here

Factory schools don’t give real education

A ten-hour day could close the attainment gap between state and private, but only if it’s used well

You can imagine the look on the faces of the poor children. At the final assembly of the Christmas term last Friday they are told by their headteacher that in the new year the school day will last ten hours, from 7.30am to 5.30pm, not the traditional seven hours. There couldn’t have been more dismay if the head had announced that Christmas has been cancelled.

Yet this ten-hour day is exactly what the Sutton Trust announced yesterday in an effort to further its mission to improve educational opportunities for children from deprived backgrounds. The decision echoes the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP) in the US, which has caught the eye of Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary. These schools have ten-hour days and are open every other Saturday, and for three weeks in the summer holidays. Thus KIPP students are in school 60 per cent longer than in other publicly run schools in the US. These free, open-enrolment schools, are heavily oversubscribed. More than 90 per cent of students are from African-American or Hispanic-Latino backgrounds, and more than 80 per cent are eligible for free or subsidised school meals. Parents are desperate to get their children into these schools in the hope of their getting into college and experiencing better lives than they did themselves.

Is the extended day the answer to chronic underachievement in British schools? Would it help to narrow the gap in performance between state and independent schools? Despite huge increases in public spending, the attainment gap between private and state has widened.

We should beware the idea that more teaching time necessarily means better education. In the independent sector, children are rarely taught in class for more than five hours a day averaged over the week, including Saturday mornings. The evidence suggests that even the most academically able cannot concentrate in class for much longer, and that further hours become counter-productive.

What counts is not extending the hours taught, but improving the quality of what happens in the time children are in lessons. Independent schools outperform state schools academically for three principal reasons. The teachers may not be better or harder working, but the ratio of subject specialists, for example in maths and physics, is far higher. Class sizes are far smaller, with, on average, twice as many teachers per pupil. Finally, behaviour and work expectations are higher, as are parental expectations. If one wants to improve the quality of academic results, it is to these three areas that attention should be given.

A deeper concern is about the narrowing of education that has happened in Britain in the past 15 years as a direct consequence of the culture of targets, league tables and low trust of schools. “Education” is derived from the Latin educare, “to draw out”. Schools should be drawing out all children’s faculties or intelligences: yet in our exam-drunk country, breadth of education and the nurturing of individuality have all too often been sacrificed to achieve quantifiable test and exam data.

Children, of course, need to be taught academic subjects rigorously, and to be tested regularly to assess their development: But, there is a world of difference between a child with a string of A grades and an educated child. Genuine learning has all too often been replaced in our factory schools by rote-learning.

What are the different intelligences that each child, regardless of background, should have “drawn out”? My own school, Wellington College, structures its curriculum and extracurricular life around eight different aptitudes, inspired by the work of Howard Gardner of Harvard University: the logical and linguistic; the creative and kinaesthetic; the moral and spiritual and the personal and the social. Where these are not developed by schools, they may lay dormant for the rest of a person’s life. Schools have a responsibility not only to develop logical and linguistic intelligences, but also the other six.

Why should children who go to independent schools enjoy this far richer education? The injustice is all the more stark because children in state schools often lack the same opportunities and support at home to develop their broader intelligences, and school thus becomes all the more important if they are to become fully rounded human beings, knowing more about who they are and what their talents are.

KIPP schools focus on extracurricular activities, including music, dance and sport. They also make a feature of the “joy factor”, using a variety of techniques, including movement and chanting to make lessons engaging and positive.

Schools should be immensely happy places, but in the “factory school” mentality we have allowed to grow up in Britain, they are anything but. Achieving breadth and depth is not an add-on: it is the right of every child. So three cheers for the Sutton Trust if its ten-hour day allows time for the wider development of the whole child.


Graduation for kindergarten gets A+ for weirdness

Graduation season is upon us. But not the university type. The class of 2009, the leaders of the future, are a bunch of five-year-olds who can barely spell their name, let alone write a thesis.

Graduation for children is a bizarre phenomenon that has gained momentum in the past few years. A child who enters preschool and completes a university degree may potentially "graduate" half a dozen times over the space of 13 years, giving us the most overqualified generation yet to step on a dais.

Kindy graduation comes first, for those "school leavers" off to start school, followed by year 6 graduation for those moving from primary school to high school, then year 12 graduation . . . And some schools even have a ceremony for students moving from middle school to senior school.

Some may never go on to tertiary education - you know, from which you actually graduate, with a degree or diploma in hand - but still would have ''graduated'' many times over.

A degree is a concrete and measurable marker of having earned something, not just having turned up. It is for students. For those who have studied, researched, written dissertations, been examined and assessed. They will pick up many vital lessons of life along the way, gaining financial and emotional independence from their parents that may include moving out of home, developing adult relationships and experimenting with vices.

To finance their educational enterprise, many will work long hours for the minimum wage, while studying and racking up a big debt to complement that hard-won certification.

Their degree is conferred upon them by a senior member of the institution or a guest, usually selected from the field of study they have undertaken. This is graduation, not kindergarten.

Don't get me wrong. Little kids with their cardboard mortar boards and hastily sewn capes pinned over freshly ironed clothes are as cute as a button. It is hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the moment as they parade in front of proud families, belt out the national anthem and demonstrate the things they have learnt during the year.

But kindergarten, preschool, day care - whatever form of childcare - is a mixture of childminding, play, socialisation and preparation for school. The lessons learnt in the playground of a child-care centre are valuable but they have not even entered formal learning.

Some might see it as harmless fun, but it devalues the worth of a degree or diploma that has been hard-earned, whether with a pass or with honours. It suggests you deserve to graduate just by turning up.

It is not just about getting letters to put after your name to make you look more impressive - most tertiary-educated people don't bother with that. But a degree or diploma will be there through life: it qualifies graduates for fields of employment, it is a sign of higher learning, it is a building block for further study to become a specialist in a particular field.

So what, then, to make of this kindy grad trend? Surely it is more about us as adults, parents, than about our young children. Why are we in such a rush for them to grow up? What delusions of grandeur are we inflicting upon them? Where will it end? Will there be new tiers of graduation, with different-coloured hoods on their gowns and honours for those who know their alphabet and can count to more than 10?

I have no beef with the excellent childcare workers who do so much for the children in their care and try hard to ensure these ceremonies are a success. But it has become one of those hard-to-resist phenomena in which once a few start doing it others follow, and soon kindy graduation becomes the norm in an ever-increasing trend of tailoring adult behaviour to children.

It is more evidence of our rush to fast-track kids, creating mini-adults out of them rather than letting them enjoy their childhood and grow up at their own pace.

My guess is that most five-year-olds would happily settle for cupcakes, cordial and a singalong to celebrate the end of their attendance at preschool, rather than endure a semi-solemn ceremony requiring rehearsals and motherhood statements.


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