Saturday, July 17, 2010


OP-ED RESPONSES & Letters to the editor of The L.A. Times

Blowback: THE BILINGUAL EDUCATION DEBATE - Four responses to The Times' recent Op-Eds on bilingual education in American schools.

July 17, 2010 – LAT 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 [follows] 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


Letters to the Editor: July 17, 2010

Re "English immersion," Opinion, July 11

Conservative America's paranoia regarding the English-only issue is really wearing thin.

The ability to communicate in two or more languages is a sign of intellect, not political weakness. Yet everyone in the world knows that when one travels to the United States, one had better speak English. This fosters a mindset that we are too arrogant — or simply not bright enough — to learn one or two other languages.

For many of us, communicating in another language while traveling is one of the highlights of any trip abroad. Conversely, some Americans become infuriated at the mere thought of being unable to communicate with others in English — while in a non-English-speaking country.

The last time I checked, English was, for us, a borrowed language anyway.

Michael Barton

Huntington Beach

I found it disappointing that The Times chose Alice Callaghan to present arguments regarding the education of language-minority children.

Callaghan is a well-known English-only political activist. She claims that a single factor — English-only schooling — is the overriding element in the academic success of English learners. In making this argument, she neglects an enormous body of research that indicates that the most successful English-language development, when measured along language, academic, social and cross-cultural dimensions, is that delivered as part of a dual language program.

Callaghan also neglects to explain the failure of schools to educate adequately many ethnic minority and lower socioeconomic status students whose only language is English.

Hopefully, readers will seek out more accurate information on this topic. The nature of future educational opportunities for California's more than 2million students who speak a language other than English at home depends on the public overcoming its lack of understanding of these programs.

David P. Dolson


The writer is a former administrator of the Language Policy and Leadership Office, California Department of Education.

Re "What works?," Opinion, July 11

For too long, the politics of language have driven our failed policies to effectively educate our English learners. Kudos to Bruce Fuller, Laurie Olsen and Shelly Spiegel-Coleman for shifting the conversation to the merits of language.

The research is clear that students perform at higher academic levels when they master their native language and learn a second language. Also, in order to globally compete in the 21st century, students need to develop linguistic and cultural literacy and functional proficiency in multiple languages.

Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District approved the World Languages resolution acknowledging the linguistic assets that English learners possess and institutionalizing the importance of multi-lingual proficiency as a crucial skill in the global economy. The resolution calls for the district to increase the number of dual immersion programs that promote simultaneous acquisition of two languages.

Our challenge now is implementation. The district must take this opportunity to effectively meet the needs of English learners and become a leader in preparing our students to be global citizens.

Yolie Flores

Los Angeles

The writer is vice president, LAUSD Board of Education.

We have two groups of children — one speaking mostly English and one mostly Spanish — seeking to enter the global marketplace as bilinguals in two of the three most spoken languages in the world. Instead of forcing one language out of the classroom, why not have students learn from each other and learn another language?

Christopher George Hughes

Portland, Ore.

I am puzzled by Sunday's discussion of the difficulties young Mexicans have in learning English.

Back in the day, in the aftermath of World War II, the schools were filled with displaced persons. Somehow, despite their language of origin, they mastered English.

An Estonian beat me out for the physics prize. Is a Mexican's brain somehow different? I don't think so. The solution is, as it always has been, total immersion.

Phillip Good

Huntington Beach

As a former school board member of the Burbank Unified School District, I was drawn to your Op-Ed articles on bilingual education. I hoped for some new insight, but apparently there is nothing new to add — just the same old rhetoric, cultural bias, excuses and scapegoating.

I ask again, as I have been asking for more than 20 years, why the argument for bilingual education — which initially gives token mention to all cultures — always boils down to focusing on the cluster of Spanish-speaking students who lag woefully behind?

Where are the data that analyze why students from Japan, India, Israel, Lebanon, Korea, Colombia, Chile, Russia, etc. seem to succeed and often excel with an English-only education in public schools?

I think these bilingual advocates are overlooking critical variables that sorely beg consideration if anyone ever expects to enhance the potential for success of Mexican immigrant children.

Patricia Burnett


One aspect that was missing in these articles was that of literacy in the home language.

Most students, if not all, do very well acquiring any language if they are fluent, literate or come with the requisite skills for acquiring language. Instilling these can be as simple as reading to your children — in any language.

What I've found at my school is that students who speak conversational Spanish but do not understand its grammar — or can't read it — struggle with acquiring English.

On the plus side, I've found that children with a home language other than English who come with some or all of the aforementioned skills are more adept at picking up English. Invariably, I believe this falls back on the resources that parents are able to give their children.

John Egan


The following was sent to but not published in the Times.

Thanks to Bruce Fuller, Laurie Olsen and Shelly Spiegel-Coleman for their excellent articles and research on bilingual education. As a teacher of 40 years I have taught children in both bilingual programs and English immersion programs. Since 28 years of my experience were before the passage of prop 227 in 1998 I can attest to the benefits that English learners derived from being taught in a bilingual setting. Contrary to the testimonies of Alice Callaghan, Ron Unz, and other non-educators, English competency has always been a goal as well as curricular competency which, of course, is attained when the student actually understands the language of instruction.

Since 1998 I have watched the state of California and particularly the Los Angeles Unified School District systematically destroy young lives by denying them equitable access to core material because of political considerations regarding language that have always trumped educational ones. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer university training programs have produced bilingual teachers when school districts have overwhelmingly disregarded the benefits of those programs and, of course, of their instructors.

The economic and civilizing benefits of multilingualism cannot be overstated. When will Californians do the right thing for all their children and allow schools to teach not only in English but in other languages as well?

Cheryl Ortega

Los Angeles

Cheryl is an ELL elementary teacher in LAUSD and the UTLA Bilingual Ed maven

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