I remember signing up for French as a high school sophomore. The textbooks had not arrived so we were learning by speaking. Not being able to connect the sounds to written words, I was lost. After two weeks I made, for me, a fateful decision. I transferred into a world history class. I still don't know French (even have an aversion to learning it), but world history began my fascination with learning.
How students are to learn a foreign language--English--is the subject of a state-wide proposition to be voted on in California. Should bilingual education be eliminated? Strong and persuasive voices can be heard on both sides. Being a bellwether state, their decision will affect education in the rest of the country.
Calexico, a border town of 22,000, has all the makings for social and educational disaster (high gang activity, drug and alcohol abuse, 25% unemployment and average family income of $12,000), yet its innovative bilingual policies send 93% of its recent high school graduates to college. On the other side, some deeply involved in bilingual education have horror stories of students locked into Spanish and not learning English. Also, they ask, if bilingual education is the answer to language learning, why only Spanish? Why not bilingual education for the other non-English speaking students (100+ non-English languages spoken in homes).
Thus, bilingual education joins other controversies in today's education: phonics vs. whole word, home schooling vs. public schooling vs. parochial and private schooling, and, from a few decades back, open vs. traditional classrooms. Enough successes and failures of each proposal exist to keep controversy alive.
The basic flaw, it seems to me, is that all students cannot be shoehorned into one system of learning. We now know that some students learn better aurally and some visually. Some students learn best in a highly structured environment, others in an atmosphere of being able to explore. Rote learning pulls some along, whereas experimental leaning entices others. I have no doubt that some children, as some adults, learn best by immersion in a second language, which others learn best with their primary language as a reference point for the new.
The simple answer to these educational controversies is, I believe, is to provide more taxes for more educational options and for relaxed control over classroom teachers. Neither is likely to happen with taxpayers grousing and administrators increasingly administrating. As a result, the dire results of public education will continue to populate the news and editorial pages of our newspapers.
I was saved by an option in tenth grade.
The option to not learn English is unavailable to students today,
except to drop out of school. Finding multiple ways to keep the
dropping-out option from being exercised is within our reach but
currently is outside our will.
--Robert H. Tucker
23 March 1998