It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

As Education Week, the national newsweekly of America’s school establishment, marks its twentieth anniversary, its pages have begun running a series of reprinted stories on the major educational controversies of twenty years ago.

Back when a Georgian peanut farmer occupied the White House and most pundits completely discounted the presidential hopes of a retired former actor from California, the newly created Department of Education began a major review study of the educational evidence concerning America’s already mushrooming bilingual education programs. Commissioned by the Carter Administration, it was eventually obtained by the Washington Post during the early Reagan Administration, and generated considerable controversy, leading to the Education Week article below, dated October 1981.

As the story indicates, the Department of Education study found no evidence that bilingual education actually worked, and if anything greater evidence for the effectiveness of English immersion techniques. These views were soon strongly seconded by Albert Shanker, legendary founder of the modern teachers’ union movement, and leader of the American Federation of Teachers. National surveys conducted around this same time indicated that the overwhelming majority of Hispanic parents—and voters in general—favored English rather than Spanish in the schools. Key figures in the newly installed Reagan Administration had long been ideologically opposed to bilingual programs.

Despite this apparent constellation of forces, nothing happened. In what may eventually become widely known to future political scientists as an almost perfect case study of the power of special-interest group politics, a small but vocal and highly motivated group of individuals, largely deriving their income from the bilingual education industry, completely triumphed over the diffuse opposition of the vast majority of teachers, parents, and everyone else in our society. Instead of being curtailed or eliminated, our national system of Spanish-almost-only instruction expanded by some 500% or 600% in the years that followed, eventually blighting the educational lives of many millions of students, and causing near educational collapse in many school systems. Then at long last, the grassroots 1996 Latino Boycott in Los Angeles, and the California and Arizona initiatives thereby inspired began the long return to educational sanity, now shifting to New England, Colorado, and perhaps New York City.

As I have repeatedly stated, I would be the last to claim that all the enormous recent advances in academic test scores of California’s millions of immigrant students can be traced solely to Proposition 227. Although the value of the widely popular and touted class size reduction program appears negligible, the state’s gradual shift away from whole language techniques to phonics has certainly had an impact at least comparable to that of the dismantling of bilingual education.

But since all the academics and activists who created and promoted bilingual education are exactly the same individuals who did the same for whole language, they have refused to admit the success of either reform, and have been left with the difficult task of either denying reality or wishing it away.

The article below, from the Los Angeles Times, again highlights the remarkable continuing gains shown by young students under Los Angeles’ new approach of English immersion and phonics. One must also bear in mind that the nominal improvements in the test scores of “limited-English” students may actually be severely understating the true results, since under our Alice-in-Wonderland system of educational classification, “limited-English” students who do too well on tests are automatically removed from that category. Finally, considerable credit should be given to

Reed Hastings, a liberal Democrat and Gov. Gray Davis’s appointee as President of the California State Board of Education. During the Prop. 227 campaign, he had strongly opposed the initiative as “one-size-fits-all,” but having now seen the resulting dramatic improvement in Latino immigrant academic achievement and as a Massachusetts native, he has completely endorsed his home state’s forthcoming ballot measure, and underscored that endorsement with a $20,000 contribution. His conversion follows that of Ken Noonan, for thirty years a strong champion of bilingual education and founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators.

Perhaps there is yet hope in this world.

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