Banishing bilingualism education policy in California
The Nation. December 9, 2002
Susan Katz and Herbert Kohl
Within the next decade, 30-40 percent of current public school teachers in
the United States will retire, opening up more than 700,000 teaching positions.
This provides a great opportunity to develop energized young teachers who could
revitalize public education. But it could also be an opening to mold a new
generation of teachers who know only increasingly rigid standards, high-stakes
testing, inflexible Eurocentric curriculum and English-only learning.
In California, the State Board of Education has chosen the latter path.
Through directives, legislation and the redefinition of teacher credential
programs, the word "bilingual" has been banished from the vocabulary of
schooling in California, replaced by "English-language learning." Instruction in
students' native language is against the law. Instead, non-English-speaking
students are tested in English, which frequently guarantees their failure, since
many do not even understand the instructions. These state mandates ignore the
most significant language-acquisition research findings of the past twenty
years: Students learn a second language best when they can build academically
upon their first language. The policies also ignore a 1998 report of student
achievement (as measured in standardized test scores) that showed that
English-language learners enrolled in bilingual programs in San Francisco and
San Jose schools outperformed native-born English speakers in all content areas.
These programs are now at risk of being dismantled in favor of a uniform system
that suppresses many children's first language.
In an attempt to remake a teaching force in California that lacks any memory of
bilingual education and any skill in teaching to the strengths of
non-English-speaking students, the board of education has decided to end the
granting of the two major teaching credentials--CLAD (Cross-cultural Language
and Academic Development) and BCLAD (Bilingual
Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development). These credentials meant that
prospective teachers get training in the theory and practice of teaching
bilingual children, respecting the use of students' home language and culture
while helping ease their transition into English-language schooling. By the end
of 2003, when 45 percent of the students in California public schools will be
living in non-English-speaking homes, these credentials will be phased out.
The board has gone so far as to expunge the words "bilingual" and "culture" from
its official literature. This strategy is accompanied by a strict emphasis on
phonics teaching, high-stakes testing and centralized control over the content
of learning through state-adopted textbooks and highly specific statewide
The direction of today's education policy in California largely derives from the
English for the Children initiative passed in 1998, sponsored by millionaire
conservative Ron Unz and upheld by the courts. But this movement is not limited
California. Within the last two years, Unz backed a second anti-bilingual
initiative (Proposition 203), which passed in Arizona, and supported similar
measures on the November election in Massachusetts and Colorado. Results were
mixed: Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved their anti-bilingual
measure, while Colorado voters rejected theirs, upholding the right to
English Only is spreading to the federal level as well. Last January, the
Bilingual Education Act was killed by the Bush Administration. This law,
officially Title VII of the 1968 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was
replaced by a provision called No Child Left Behind, which requires that funds
be used only for the explicit acquisition of English.
The former Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs is now
the Office of English Language Acquisition. Essentially, the words "bilingual
education" have been excised from the ederal government's lexicon.
In California and other English-Only states, these efforts mean that new
teachers will not be equipped to understand the majority of their students
linguistically, culturally or academically. In extreme cases, teachers will be
punished and possibly fined for reaching out to children in their own languages.
Teachers' ability to forge bonds with their bilingual
students will be crippled by these restraints. Children's ability to bridge the
knowledge from home with learning at school will be impaired. School failure
will be perpetuated on an institutional basis. It is essential that we resist
attacks on multiculturalism and linguistic diversity, which are disingenuously
conducted in the name of children's best interests. The tragedy, and irony, is
that effective bilingual programs, which insure that all children have a chance
to succeed, are the likely casualties of this assault.
Susan Katz is associate professor of education and associate director of the
Institute of Social Justice and Education at the University of San Francisco,
where Herbert Kohl is director. Among Kohl's books are The Discipline of Hope, I
Won't Learn From You (both New Press) and 36 Children (Penguin).