(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.

Filed under: Commentary, English learners

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  1. CarolineSF says:

    And Lycos, do you have some reason not to perceive that newer immigrants are less assimilated and the later generations assimilate — as opposed to the belief that immigrants from nearby countries don’t assimilate because they don’t really plan to stick around? Or any reason to believe that those previous immigrants, like my neighbors’ Nonni, were quicker to assimilate than today’s Mexican and Central American immigrants? I’m not seeing it.

  2. CarolineSF says:

    I admire Michael Schaeffer’s comment because it takes an honest look at immigrant cultures of the past. … When I was a kid, my playmates across the street had Italian Nonni living with them — she spoke no English at all. I now know that she came to the U.S. as a young woman and raised her family here, in San Francisco’s Excelsior district. I’ve since had other friends who would visit their non-English-speaking Italian grandmas (just like seemingly all groups, the grandmas outlived the grandpas by years — decades) in the Excelsior, where they had raised their families. Today I know that the Excelsior was ike so many immigrant neighborhoods — the men went out to work and spoke some English; the wives tended the home and the family, communicated only within the Italian immigrant community, and never learned any English at all. That just seems rather quaint and sweet now, and not such a horrible threat to our national security. … Also in my youth (bear with me) I loved the book “The Black Stallion” (first published 1941 — it was a vintage book when I was reading it as a kid, I hasten to add). It had a major character portrayed as a member of a social underclass — he was Italian. When Francis Coppola made the book into the 1979 movie, he had to make that character black — Italian would have made no sense as a social underclass. To me those points provide some crucial perspective.

  3. Lycos says:

    Perhaps I will clarify in view of Michael Schaeffer comment. The Latino immigration to the US is split into two groups. One is similar to the traditional immigration waves, where the immigrants make an explicit choice to resettle and look for a better life. This group integrates mostly along the same lines as previous immigration waves. But the other group is more like the Guest Workers in Europe and other places. It comes with the purpose of earning money and going back as soon as it can. It may or may not actually go back, and it may or may not bring other family members along, but the primary sense in this group is that “we are here just for the duration; we have no reason to invest in this society.” This group integrates much much slower. This split existed in most immigration waves. The big difference between the Latino wave and the German (or Italian, or Polish, or Philippino) waves is in their relative proportions. In those waves the overwhelming majority was of the first kind. In the Latino immigration wave, possibly due to the geographical proximity of Mexico, the second kind seems quite large. And that makes all the difference.

  4. Michael Schaeffer says:

    Regarding Ben Franklin and German immigrants to Pennsylvania, it is interesting to note that German language elementary education was common in Pennsylvania until late in the 19th century (almost 150 years after Franklin’s quotation.) And loyalty issues persisted through the first and second world wars.

    My great-grand uncle, Nathan C. Schaeffer (whose own education included graduate studies in Berlin and Leipzig), was responsible as state superintendent of public instruction for an “English language only” policy that Pennsylvania adopted in the 1890′s for non-religious schools. He was vilified in the German language press.

    I think most studies show that with economic success and born-in-America generations immigrants and their families from any location assimilate and become part of the American fabric. I fear neither legal nor illegal immigration; it is what has made us the land of success and opportunity. Education has been, and still is, the way forward for most new Americans.

  5. Russ says:

    For several years I was a substitute teacher. I had a class called “general studies”. It was called that because they refused to learn anything. So I asked them why they were there. They said “So our mothers will not be deported.” They asked if I spoke Spanish and I said “No, this is the United States.” Their reply was “Not for Long.” The believed that California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were about to be “returned to Mexico” so there was no need to learn English.

    The legal immigrants and most of the illegal immigrants want to learn English and be assimilated. The problem is small and very vocal fraction the advocates the take over of California etc. There are students who are able to, but refuse to learn English. Even though many can speak English, they are defiant when put into an English class. They want Spanish to become the official language of California etc. So the question is how to convince them to put down their Mexican Flags and become loyal citizens of the United States?

  6. John S. Leyba says:

    Interesting discussion. Thanks, Mr Schrag, for sitting in for John. Pleasure meeting you at that USA/Swiss Direct Democracy panel in SF last week.

    The overlooked issue in the immigration discussion is not race, nor ethnicity, nor language, but POVERTY, which is why so many come to America illegally. They would endure any and many hardships to be here.

    Despite (or Because of?) the Great Society programs, this country never solved its own poverty/class issues, let alone dealing with millions of impoverished folks and their children from other countries: keeping them healthy, educating them, and integrating them into our society. All these other issues (English proficiency, math, etc.) are all proxies for poverty.

    In the case of many Mexican immigrants, many of them would not be considered proficient or advanced in *Spanish*. They may be native speakers but are usually not at a university level in their home language, either.

    There is no easy solution for this, but I have to think that making the KIDS responsible for their own success is a huge part of it. How do we do that?

  7. edfundwonk says:

    Contrary to Mr. Schrag’s implication, not all opponents of illegal immigration are xenophobic, racist cretins. I am constantly amazed how otherwise intelligent people like Mr. Schrag are unable to grasp the distinction between the terms “legal” and “illegal.” Instead, they resort to the fallacious argument of guilt by association: if, in the past, some xenophobes sought to curtail the LEGAL immigration of a specific racial, ethnic, or linguistic group for offensive and demonstrably false reasons, then the motives of opponents of ILLEGAL immigration must be the same. Frankly,I find this argument offensive. This isn’t an issue of “us” versus “them.” It’s one of “lawful” versus “unlawful.” If we, as a society, believe that the nation’s immigration laws are unfair, we have the ability to change them by federal legislation. Unless and until they are changed, however, they should be enforced.

  8. Lycos says:

    Regarding Hanna Katz’s comment: Exactly.

  9. Hannah Katz says:

    One major difference from Ben Franklin’s example with the Germans in Pennsylvania is that Germany is a long way from America. Immigrants did not go back and forth much, and they did not have German radio stations, television, and Internet available to insulate the Germans from Americanizing. Also, Germans at that time made no threats to take over America and remake it into another Germany.

  10. Paul Muench says:

    Being an optimist, I’d love to see this issue reframed as bilingual education for all children. The current economic trends are creating a world where being multi-lingual is much more important than in years past and we’re not preparing students for that world. Since I have not heard anything about this in reference to common core standards, it seems that even the latest standards ignore this issue.