New immigrants, same old confounding issue
Jun 4, 2010 | By Peter Schrag
(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
I’m fortunate to have Peter Schrag subbing for me today as an Educated Guest. Peter is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His new book, just out, is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.”
By Peter Schrag Guest columnist
Last month’s report charging California schools with failing to educate English language learners is hardly the first such indictment. And given all the other crises confronting the schools and the state, it won’t get nearly the official attention it deserves.
But in its condemnation of the system for its fumbling, its lack of data, its inconsistency and confusion in pedagogical strategies and its outright neglect of immigrant children – and often the U.S.-born children of immigrants as well – it evokes eerie echoes of a long history of battles about the education of immigrants from colonial days to the current gubernatorial campaign of California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Does bilingual education work and if so, under what circumstances? Does English immersion? What other means are available? Are children from certain cultures or “races” simply less able to keep up? Or, as Poizner urged, and as a majority of Californians believed when they voted for Proposition 187 in 1994, should we just exclude illegal immigrants from the schools altogether?
The new report was issued by Californians Together, a coalition of labor, civil rights and education advocacy groups created in 1998 response to the passage of Proposition 227, which sought to end most bilingual education in California. Among its members is CABE, the California Association for Bilingual Education, which has been a long-time lobbyist for the cause in Sacramento.
The report, based on a survey of 40 districts and written by Laurie Olsen, a veteran researcher and advocate for immigrant students, estimates that English learners comprise roughly 18 percent of the enrollment in grades 7-12. Of that group, it says, nearly 60 percent have been in U.S. schools for six years or more without becoming sufficiently English-proficient to be reclassified.
Its prime recommendation is the adoption of English language development materials and courses tailored to the special needs of such students and the creation of data and assessment systems to track their progress.
The report, “Reparable Harm: Fulfilling the Unkept Promise of Education Opportunity for California’s Long-term English Learners,” also points out that the state and its schools don’t even have a clear understanding of what “English proficiency” means or a clear definition of who is and isn’t an “English learner.” Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the president of Californians Together, argues that students may be fluent in oral, conversational, English but so deficient in “academic English” that they’re doomed to fail in school.
Would the creation of separate English language development courses in secondary schools lead to the soft bigotry of a new form of segregation, as opponents contended when the state Board of Education considered (and rejected) similar elementary school programs in 2008? Spiegel-Coleman says no, in part because the change would involve only one or two courses, and, in part, because some secondary schools have so many English learners that they’re already effectively segregated.
Hardly anyone disputes the report’s main conclusions about the difficulty that the children of immigrants, especially those from low income families or poor countries, have in succeeding in school. Those conclusions come from countless other studies and official reports, including the state’s own.
But the same definitional problems about which the Californians Together report complains confound the report itself. In 2008-2009, according to the state Department of Education, 40 percent of the students classified as “English learners” in the 10th grade passed the English-language arts part of CAHSEE, the California High School Exit Exam; 53 percent passed the math part.
Granted that the tests are far from the most rigorous in academia, that record still raises serious questions about who’s classified as what. If they’re “English learners”, how can they pass the state’s high school exit exam – and in the tenth grade no less – in English?
Districts slow to reclassify English learners
And since the state also reports statewide API (Academic Performance Index) scores that are even lower for African Americans than they are for English learners, they may reflect as much on the general inadequacy of the schools – or on countless other problems in the lives of poor children – as they do on the unique problems of that squishy category called “English learners.” What’s almost certain is that a lot of local districts are slow to reclassify students from “English learner” to “RFEP (redesignated fully English proficient).” One measure of that reluctance is that RFEP students are consistently among the highest scorers on the state’s tests.
What may be most ironic about reports like the one from Californians Together is that they tend to reinforce the biases of immigration restrictionists – the belief that immigrants from poor countries can’t meet American educational standards and represent a serious drag on resources and the progress of other students.
Same reaction to each wave of immigration
That’s a belief that goes back through centuries of U.S. history – that the Irish or Italians or Slavs or Greeks arriving a century ago – were “retarded,” “feeble minded” or otherwise unable to succeed in American schools. It also tends to reinforce the latter-day arguments of scholars like Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution or the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington that because of the great influx of Latinos speaking Spanish the nation will be linguistically and culturally Balkanized.
That one goes back to colonial days when Benjamin Franklin warned (in 1751) that the great waves of Germans then arriving was turning Pennsylvania into “a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
Obviously, none of those warnings turned out to be correct – Franklin himself later changed his mind – and there’s a great deal of data to indicate that they will turn out to be no more correct for the present generation.
Nor should the perverse political side-effects of the Californians Together report detract from its underlying purpose – the effective education of millions of immigrant and other minority students on whom, as the boomers retire, the nation’s economy will increasingly depend.
But regardless of debates about its diagnoses and prescriptions, it’s yet another reminder that our historic pedagogical and cultural uncertainties about the education of immigrants are still with us and that as the number of Latino children increases, the stakes and the need to resolve them become ever greater.