Low Popahirum


The Bilingual Education Controversy Enters its Seventh Decade


Huey (The Kingfish) Long, a U.S. Senator who represented Louisiana in the 1930’s, raised the art of demagoguery to new heights.  He would relate to his friends how patent medicine men used to concoct a mixture of snake oil. The makers called it “high popalorum” or “low popahirum,” depending on how they manufactured it. They made the first by tearing the bark of a tree down, and the second by tearing the bark up. The Kingfish would later adopt these terms to describe two of his populist messages.
Before giving a stump speech, Long was frequently asked by his aide, “What will it be today Senator, “high populorum” or “low popahirum?” A high popalorum speech meant railing against the intrusion of the federal government into states’ rights, as well as harping on the states’ interference in local issues. A low popahirum speech appealed to the prejudices of the electorate, the majority of who were biased against anybody who appeared, spoke, acted or worshipped differently than themselves.


Low Popahirum


I. Teach Our Children English

What is bilingual education?

Bilingual education is the practice of teaching non-English speaking students core subjects in their native language as they learn English. Developed in the 1970's, such programs were intended to help children keep up with their peers in subjects such as math, science and social studies while they studied English. Bilingual program students are separated from other students for most of the school day. It was meant to be a transitional program for non-English speaking children that would enable them to move into regular classrooms within three years.

Why does ProEnglish oppose bilingual education?

Because it doesn’t work. After 30 years experience and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars, research shows that bilingual education programs do not teach students the English language and literacy they need for school success. The idea may have been well intentioned but it has proven to be ineffective.  Segregation by language and ethnicity does not lead to higher academic performance, does not raise students’ self-esteem, and often results in social isolation and high drop-out rates. Delaying the learning of English, the language of school and community life, lowers student grades on standard achievement tests.  Graduating from high school without English fluency and literacy deprives students of opportunity in an English-speaking country.
ProEnglish actively backs state initiatives to do away with bilingual education.  Since Californians first voted for the “English for the Children” initiative that ended that state’s bilingual education programs in 1998, bilingual education programs increasingly are being replaced by English Immersion teaching.  Arizona voted to eliminate bilingual education by an even higher margin in 2000, and Massachusetts did the same in 2002. There are now only three states that mandate bilingual education programs: Texas, Illinois and New Jersey.

What programs work?

English Immersion (sometimes referred to as English as a Second Language or ESL) programs work.  In these programs, students spend one full school year (or longer, if necessary) intensively studying English.  After that, they continue developing their English skills by using them in English-language classrooms.  In California and Arizona test reports show students learn English in two years on average, and achieve passing scores on reading and math tests as well.   
Voluminous research comparing students in bilingual programs to students in English Immersion programs reports far better results for English Immersion.  This has been documented in data from Dade County, Florida (1987), El Paso, Texas (1992), New York City Public Schools (1994), Arizona (2004, 2006, 2008) and California (2008) (see selected studies below).
A Lexington Institute study published in 2008 reported that some of the highest-performing students in California public schools are children who started kindergarten with little or no English. (see Jacobs study)  In June 2009 Massachusetts announced that in seventeen of the forty-two Boston high schools the valedictorian of the graduating class was a student who had come from another country within the past few years, without knowing any English.  Thanks to English Immersion classrooms these students not only learned English rapidly but were able to achieve the highest possible degree of success in high school. 
In California, Superintendent of Schools Ken Noonan, former head of the California Association for Bilingual Education, changed his position completely after seeing the results of the first year of English Immersion teaching and has become a vocal supporter of English Immersion programs.

What is dual immersion?

Dual immersion programs, sometimes erroneously called ‘bilingual education’ programs, refer to programs in which roughly half the students are native English speakers and half are native speakers of another language. Students are taught in English half the school day and the other half of the school day in the second language. The goal is to help all students become bilingual in a second language. While such programs are popular with parents of English-speaking students they are expensive and require there to be equilibrium between two language groups. Teaching children a second language is a laudable goal. But Pro English believes the first responsibility of the public schools is to teach non-English speaking children English as rapidly as possible. 

So why do schools still use bilingual education?

Despite thirty years of failure a politically powerful bureaucracy continues to push bilingual education because it is heavily subsidized and generates teaching and administrative jobs as well as higher salaries and more spending.  Some educators and activists promote bilingual education as a means of "maintaining one’s cultural heritage." That is not the job of our public schools but the job of the family and the community.  With 327 languages spoken in the U.S. today, the job of our schools is not to maintain native languages, but to give students the tools they need to succeed as citizens of an English-speaking country. 
Politicians sometimes fear a vote against bilingual education will suggest they are hostile to minorities.  But millions of people in three states voted overwhelmingly for English immersion teaching, with very strong support from immigrant communities – one more sign that politicians are out of step with the people they represent.  A READ Institute survey found that 81% of Hispanics want their children to learn English quickly; only 12% want their children taught in Spanish. This is one of many surveys that reveal such attitudes. Immigrants come to this country seeking the benefits of our society, yet our public schools often fail to give them the skills they need to prosper and participate as self-sufficient members of our democracy.

-ProEnglish Website


II. English First

An Editorial

Language is a mystery that has baffled science and religion since the first recorded utterance of upright man. The Bible makes much mention of the cacophony of languages in the Tower of Babel story, and modern-day anthropologists and linguists still ruminate with no consensus over just what piece of the genetic or environmental puzzle contains the answer to the existence and persistence of varied and distinct languages, often spoken only a few miles apart. Despite a spate of new books on the origins of language -- including The Horse, The Wheel and Language (David Anthony, Princeton Books), which traces the Proto-Indo-European language to the steppes of Eurasia by combining anthropology and archeology with linguistics -- the quest to find a comfortable theory of language remains elusive.
It is lamented that today only 6,700 languages remain on earth. This seems an ample number, considering the march of nationalism over the past 150 years, during which formerly distinct local languages and dialects were passed by or forgotten in the process of forming political statehood. In Latin America in the 1820s and 1830s, Spanish and Portuguese replaced native dialects during independence from Spain and Portugal. Later, in Europe, the rise of democracy and dominant tongues left behind dozens of local languages that are now forgotten. The new nations formed after World War II in the wake of the end of European empires in Africa, India, the Pacific, and the Caribbean suppressed native languages and dialects to allow the language of statehood to take control of public life. 
The newest catalyst to the unification of language is the gallop of free market trade and globalization since the 1980s, spurred to breakneck pace with the ensuing collapse of the Soviet monolith and the end of socialist command economies. Now the strain on local languages is not from the forces that build new nations, but rather economic and cultural realities that require the nations themselves to forge a global method of communication -- a lingua franca for the New Millennium, an overarching language that transcends local dialect for the purpose of trade, finance, diplomacy, and cultural communication.

-English First Website

III. The Case Against Bilingual Education

BILINGUAL education is a classic example of an experiment that was begun with the best of humanitarian intentions but has turned out to be terribly wrongheaded.
English was not always the language of instruction in American schools. During the eighteenth century classes were conducted in German, Dutch, French, and Swedish in some schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. From the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century, classes were taught in German in several cities across the Midwest. For many years French was taught and spoken in Louisiana schools, Greek in Pittsburgh. Only after the First World War, when German was proscribed, did public sentiment swing against teaching in any language but English.
IN simplest terms, bilingual education is a special effort to help immigrant children learn English so that they can do regular schoolwork with their English-speaking classmates and receive an equal educational opportunity. But what it is in the letter and the spirit of the law is not what it has become in practice. Some experts decided early on that children should be taught for a time in their native languages, so that they would continue to learn other subjects while learning English. It was expected that the transition would take a child three years.

From this untried experimental idea grew an education industry that expanded far beyond its original mission to teach English and resulted in the extended segregation of non-English-speaking students. In practice, many bilingual programs became more concerned with teaching in the native language and maintaining the ethnic culture of the family than with teaching children English in three years… bilingual education has had a sufficient trial period to be pronounced a failure. It is time finally to welcome immigrant children into our society by adding to the language they already know a full degree of competency in the common language of their new country -- to give these children the very best educational opportunity for inclusion.
-Rosalie Pedalino Porter


IV. Examining the Issue of Bilingual Education


Margaret Scott Illustration

In 1998 California replaced bilingual education programs in its public schools with English-teaching programs. Arizona did the same in 2000. Should Massachusetts follow suit in 2002? Before answering this difficult question, which will be posed as the "English for the Children" initiative at the ballot box in November, Mount Holyoke community members have the opportunity to consider both sides of the issue on Wednesday, March 27, at 11 am in Mary Woolley's New York Room.
"The Great Debate: What Should Be the Future of Bilingual Education in Massachusetts?" will feature bilingual education opponent Rosalie Pedalino Porter, who helped draft the initiative, and bilingual education proponent Catherine Snow, whose op-ed pieces on this hotly contested issue appeared in the March 13 issue of the Boston Globe.
"The future of bilingual education is a critical issue for public school education across the country," said John Fox, visiting lecturer of complex organizations and coordinator of the MHC event. "There is an enormous amount of emotional and intellectual energy on both sides of the issue, increasingly so because of the successful initiatives in California and Arizona." Fox will moderate the debate, inviting fifteen-minute presentations from each speaker, brief rebuttals, and questions from the audience.
A lawyer by training, Fox's teaching method is to have students understand and articulate arguments on both sides of each issue they study. "The most persuasive person is the one able to articulate their opponent's argument even better than their opponent," said Fox.
In anticipation of the debate, Fox's students will read opposing opinions on bilingual education in the context of his course Poverty in the United States, which considers why so many people are poor in this, the wealthiest of all nations, and what can be done to mitigate the level of poverty. At Holyoke Health Center, the students are getting a firsthand look at how poverty affects health. They are doing learning-service projects there on topics such as the relationship between poor housing and poor health for Holyoke's children, many of whom are poor.
Rosalie Pedalino Porter is a former Spanish bilingual teacher and program director in Newton, Massachusetts, and author, researcher, and consultant to United States school districts. She favors replacing the state's current bilingual education law—which she says imposes "a harmful, one-size-fits-all requirement" that leaves many children unable to read or write in English—with English immersion programs that adapt to the varied needs of immigrants, migrants, and refugees. "All that we advocates of change want is for districts to have a choice of programs and not be tied to the bilingual teaching that is demonstrating poor results here and across the country," wrote Porter in her Globe editorial. By replacing the current law on bilingual education, she says, we will "give limited-English students a greater opportunity to benefit from schooling and achieve their highest ambitions."
Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, takes a different stand. Bilingual education is not failing Massachusetts children, says Snow, noting that children with limited proficiency in English are reclassified as fluent in English within three to four years in bilingual programs. She says that under current law, school districts have freedom to design the best programs for their students, including structured immersion to English as a Second Language, Snow also fears that an end to bilingual education law will mean an end to federal funding for schools' neediest students. She writes, "If an antibilingual education proposition passes, Massachusetts parents would lose the option of choosing the best program for their children, and their children would lose even more."
-College Street Journal


V. The Bilingual Education Debate

Thirty years after its introduction, bilingual education is still generating controversy

In recent years, bilingual education has sparked as much controversy as any other education issue. Most educators and parents agree that the main goals in educating students with a native language other than English are mastery of English and of content in academic areas. But a heated academic and political battle rages over how best to reach those goals and how important it is to preserve the students' original language in the process.
Teachers use several methods to instruct students whose English is limited -- including immersion, transitional bilingual education, and developmental, or maintenance, bilingual education.

Yet in the past few years, some language-minority speakers -- even some Hispanic parents who have historically been strong advocates for bilingual education -- have expressed doubts about the success of bilingual programs. A focus on students' civil rights and cultural integrity is, in some cases, giving way to concern that some non-native English speakers are acquiring insufficient mastery of the English language.
But critics of bilingual education often speak from very different points of view. Organizations such English First seek to make English the U.S. official language and to "eliminate costly and ineffective multilingual policies." The politically charged issue of whether to mandate an official U.S. language clouds the academic questions surrounding bilingual programs.
Focusing on academic issues are the less strident but still determined critics who say many non-native English speakers are graduating from school systems with poor reading skills in both English and their native language. They cite low test scores to support their argument.
Backers of bilingual programs defend them by arguing that becoming proficient in any second language takes longer than one or two years. They also point to the shortage of well-qualified, fully bilingual teachers. The problem with bilingual programs, they say, often lies in the teaching, not the curriculum. They acknowledge programs could be improved by the hiring more teachers who are fully qualified. Students should not, they admit, remain in special bilingual programs longer than really necessary.
In the process of debate over bilingual programs, hot-button, politicized issues often push academic concerns into the background.
In the heated controversy over bilingual education, the most determined opponents and proponents agree on one vital point: The ultimate goal of any approach is for students to become proficient in the English language.
A CEO report titled "The Importance of Learning English," which included a survey of 600 Hispanic parents of school-age children, showed that 63 percent of Hispanic parents prefer that their children be taught English as soon as possible and 81.3 percent want their children to be taught academic subjects in English. Based on these results, Linda Chavez, president of CEO, has said English-immersion programs will better serve students than current bilingual programs.
Opponents of bilingual education programs often harken back to the early 1900s, when children of immigrants entered schools in large numbers and being raised in a bilingual home was seen as harming school success. At that time, children were discouraged from speaking their native language at school. English immersion was the order of the day, and critics of bilingualism maintain, students who did not speak English readily learned it and entered the educational mainstream.
In "The Politics of Bilingual Education Revisited," an article excerpted from her book The Failure of Bilingual Education, Dr. Rosalie Pedalino Porter takes a position opposing bilingual education and supporting a type of English-language immersion.
"I see a definite trend across the country toward replacing the failed bilingual education programs with special English-language instruction, giving these students the means to gain entry into the school community quickly and effectively instead of segregating them for years in separate classes," says Dr. Porter.
Despite disagreements on the effectiveness of bilingual education, and conflicting interpretations of research on the subject, James Crawford who has researched and written extensively about bilingual education maintains that "a consensus of applied linguists recognizes that the following propositions have strong empirical support:

The debate goes on, with reason and emotion playing key roles. Some observers suggest that parents and educators don't yet have the information they need to make a good decision about bilingual programs. Debbie Reese in the Controversy Over Bi-lingual Education suggests that "Further research will be necessary to determine which strategies are most effective in helping children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds succeed in school."
A 1997 press release from a committee of the National Research Council states that political debates over how children with limited English skills should be taught actually hamper research and evaluation of programs designed to meet the needs of these children. The committee said using research to determine whether English-only or bilingual instruction is better doesn't work. Instead of selecting one instructional method for all students with limited English skills, the committee recommended that research focus on identifying a variety of educational approaches that work for children in their communities, based on local needs and available resources.
"In recent years, studies quickly have become politicized by advocacy groups selectively promoting research findings to support their positions," said Kenji Hakuta, committee chair and professor of education at Stanford University. "Rather than choosing a one-size-fits-all program, the key issue should be identifying those components, backed by solid research findings that will work in a specific community."
Article by Sharon Cromwell


s f f