Early this past February, thousands of bilingual teachers and advocates descended upon San Jose, California, to attend what may wind up being the very last annual conference of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. CABE, as the group is known, is facing the greatest threat to its controversial profession since the advent of bilingual education a quarter-century ago.
Two months from now, on June 2, the California electorate will be casting votes on "English for the Children," a popular ballot initiative that would effectively put an end to bilingual education in California's public schools. But while CABE and its members will actively fight the measure they refer to simply as the Unz initiative, after conservative software entrepreneur Ron Unz, who is sponsoring the campaign, they will not be on the front lines of the battle. Strategists for the "No on Unz" campaign have decided not only that bilingual teachers don't make the best spokespeople for the cause but that debating the efficacy of the teaching method is counterproductive. Indeed until Election Day, the No on Unz campaign will seek to avoid mentioning bilingual education at all.
For a generation, while federal law has required schools to provide special language instruction to assist English learners in obtaining an equal education, it has never mandated the form that this assistance must take. Since the seventies, a mixture of blind faith and administrative arrogance has not only kept bilingual education afloat but made it unassailable. In their zeal to protect the program from any challenges, its ardent supporters have also consistently opposed any attempts to reform it. California's powerful teachers' unions -- one of the Democratic Party's strongest constituencies -- made the issue a mainstay of that state's liberal agenda.
Because activists had early on identified bilingual education as the primary Latino civil rights issue, the equivalent of what busing was to blacks, foes and doubters of the program were routinely branded as racists. Unfortunately, this defensive posture insured that bilingual lobbyists were more concerned with preserving the program than making sure it was benefiting the children it served.
For decades, bilingual education has been debated in cultural rather than pedagogical terms, its supporters citing the benefits of maintaining children's ethnic and linguistic heritage, its opponents insisting that immigrants should learn English and fretting that today's immigrants are not as eager to assimilate as their predecessors. Lost in this racialized hubbub was the only question that should have mattered: Is bilingual education helping or hurting limited-English speakers in U.S. public schools? Unfortunately, after a generation of politicized debate over the issue, there is still no definitive answer. There are plenty of studies showing that bilingual education works if implemented well. There are also studies proving that English immersion works when properly implemented. Last year, the National Research Council released a report calling most evaluations of bilingual-education programs worthless. The report claimed not only that politicization of the issue has hampered reliable research but also that scholarly efforts to prove the superiority of either English-only or bilingual education are pointless. Instead, the report's authors urged, studies should focus on identifying the teaching methods that work best in specific communities, according to local needs and available resources.
Despite its name, bilingual education has nothing to do with bilingualism. The vast majority of bilingual programs in California use "early-exit transitional bilingual education," in which students are expected to make a transition into "mainstream English" classes after three or four years of instruction in their primary language. Early-exit programs are designed to teach children how to read and …