No English Spoken Here

Posted: Aug 05, 2003 12:00 AM

Massachusetts recently began requiring bilingual-education teachers to pass English-fluency tests to keep their jobs. Teachers who have flunked the test are taking drastic action to address their obvious educational inadequacies -- they are suing their local school districts.

In Lowell, Mass., four Cambodian-born teachers who flunked have sued on grounds of discrimination. Failing teachers in other Massachusetts cities are consulting their lawyers, too. How they are doing this is not clear. Maybe they have interpreters.

Critics of bilingual education have long contended that rather than -- as advertised -- a way to ease immigrants into instruction in English, it constitutes an educational ghetto where students are taught in their native tongues and are kept from learning in English. The fluency debacle in Massachusetts is a stark demonstration of this critique.

In Somerville, Mass., the five bilingual teachers who took the test failed. In Lowell, 22 of 25 teachers failed. In Lawrence, 27 out of 31 teachers failed. The widespread failure to pass the test is a sign that bilingual education is a misnomer. It is really monolingual education, in any language but English.

Last November, Massachusetts approved a ballot referendum ditching bilingual education for immigrant children and moving to an English-immersion program instead. The referendum was the brainchild of entrepreneur Ron Unz, who sponsored a similar, successful initiative in California in 1998.

Unz believes that teaching children in English is the best way to teach them English. For most people, this is just common sense. But it is too much to expect a state education department to respect common sense or look after the educational interests of its students, especially if it requires confronting a politically correct interest group. Bilingual education is a favorite cause of left-wing ethnic lobbies that think English-only instruction is practically cultural imperialism -- never mind that it gives immigrant kids the tools to succeed in the United States.

So, Unz went to California voters. They passed an initiative in 1998 moving from bilingual to English-immersion instruction by a 2-to-1 margin. Every year since, the performance of Latino students in English-only classes has improved and outpaced that of students in holdover bilingual classes. Unz assumed all of this would provide the momentum to vanquish bilingual ed across the country. "I thought we could have this successful experiment in California," says Unz, "and it would roll on from there."

Instead, bilingual education has remained firmly entrenched nearly everywhere. Unz next went to Massachusetts, the most liberal state this side of Pluto, to prove again that bilingual education has no popular constituency. The initiative passed by 36 points.

It was the same as California's, with the exception of slightly stronger language calling for fluency in English from former bilingual teachers. "The places where you heard the most anecdotal stories of teachers not knowing English were in Massachusetts and New York City," says Unz.

The stories have borne out. Massachusetts teachers who will be shifted from bilingual ed to English immersion have been flunking an oral examination in which they are asked to do things like describe their jobs (apparently they don't even know how to say foreign languages"). "They have got to come up to par," says Rosalie Porter, a former bilingual teacher in Massachusetts who was a leader of the anti-bilingual initiative.

She became a bilingual teacher in the 1970s, when the program first began in Massachusetts, hoping to help immigrant children. She became convinced that bilingual ed was a catastrophe. "I saw that it absolutely didn't work," she says. "If we taught the kids in Spanish it would delay their learning of English, and delay it so much that it would be hard for them to catch up."

The California experience has proven what Porter has maintained for years. "Kids," she says, "will master the language quickly, maybe in a year, maybe two." If, that is, they are taught in English. Whether their former bilingual teachers will pick up the language as quickly, on the other hand, is very much in doubt.