Is dual-immersion the best way to teach English learners?

With bilingual education once again in the news (“To Bring Back Bilingual Ed, California Needs Teachers,” Education Next, Summer 2019), it’s important to remember that public schools in this country have never been especially effective in teaching English to non-native students.  As Irving Howe explained in World Of Our Fathers, New York City schools, which were inundated with immigrants in 1905, “did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help.”

I think the same thing will happen today.  California is a case in point because it has become the principal point of entry for immigrants.  The question is how best to teach English to newcomers to these shores.  Voters overwhelmingly endorsed bilingual education in 2016 after having decisively rejected it in 1998.  The preferred model today is dual-immersion, which involves teaching students in two languages.  Whether this practice is superior to traditional models is still open to debate.  For example, Joshua Hartshorne, the director of the Language Learning Laboratory at Boston College, in an interview said that “children need seven or eight years of intensive immersion to speak like a native.” He went on to explain that “nothing seems to work as well as just speaking the language all the time.”

No matter which side is right, however,there is an urgent need for teachers who are bilingually certified.  Despite bonuses in some cases of up to $10,000, districts in California are still hard pressed to find enough teachers.  As a result, the nearly 1.3 million students in the state who are classified as English learners often are taught by teachers without proper training. I submit that if bonuses were doubled, the problem would be solved.  The truth is that most districts offer stipends far lower than the widely cited $10,000.  For example, the San Francisco Unified School District offers $1,000.  That’s laughable.  Other districts are not much more generous. It’s going to take a lot more money to recruit these teachers and to retain them.  Don’t forget the retaining part.  That’s too often overlooked.

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Diversity’s fundamental flaw in admissions

Diversity is a worthy goal in determining who is admitted to schools, but instead it has become an obsession with unintended consequences (“Seven NYC Students Didn’t Get Seats in Elite Schools, So They Asked State for Help,” The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 22).  I have reference now to the suit filed on behalf of seven New York City students who were denied admission to the city’s specialized high schools.

They rightly argue that the city’s Discovery program offering free summer tutoring to low-income students who just miss the test-score cutoff is responsible.  By reserving seats for Discovery students, the school system has engaged in discrimination against them.  If all the students in this group were black and Hispanic, then perhaps a case could be made for what the city has done.  But the plaintiffs happen to be black, Hispanic, Asian, and white.  And they are mostly from middle-income families.

Moreover, the 1971 law on which admission to the city’s specialized high schools is based makes it abundantly clear that the Discovery program may not “in any manner interfere with the academic level” of the eight schools. But three former principals said that Discovery admits many students whose test scores are too low for them to keep up.  That alone should be the basis for denying them admission.  How in the world are such students helped if they lack the wherewithal to compete in classes with rigorous instruction?

The truth is that diversity erroneously assumes all races are monoliths.  That’s hardly so.  Blacks and Hispanics are as different as whites and Asians.  Yet we persist in the fiction that they all share the same abilities, attitudes, needs, and interests. It’s little wonder that outcomes too often are not what is expected. Changing the admissions system to engineer the “correct” racial balance of students will undermine standards.

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The paradox of history’s decline as a major

Although history as entertainment in the movies and television is at an all-time high, its appeal as a major on college campuses across the country is at an all-time low (“History As Seen on TV,” Washington Examiner, Apr. 9).  Since 2008, there has been a 30 percent decline in the number of undergraduate degrees in history, according to the American Historical Association.  In sharp contrast, however, during the same period five of the Oscars have been historical or biographical dramas.

How to account for the disparity?  Entertainment focuses on great men and women who have faced daunting conditions and yet triumphed.  That “great man” approach has captured the attention of the public. In the academy, however, social and economic determinism, with emphasis on oppression, is the how history is taught.  The entertainment industry’s approach to history is far more engaging because it makes history come to life.

I doubt that things will change on college campuses.  Indoctrination seems to be more important than a balanced approach to the subject.  Anyone doubting that needs to remember how speakers with politically incorrect views are either disinvited before they appear or harassed after they arrive.

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Teacher pensions reaffirmed in California

Teachers in California breathed a sigh of relief when the California Supreme Court ruled that vested retirements benefits cannot be abridged (“ ‘California Rule’ Upheld Without Modification,” Contact, April 2019).  But there are still three upcoming cases that address the issue of public employees.  As a result, it’s premature to break out the champagne.

Whether other state high courts will take the same position as California’s is unclear.  So much depends on whether they hold that promises made are sacrosanct. The California Rule treats a public employee’s pension as a form of deferred compensation, with the value set the day the employee is hired. Although terms can be altered over time, the overall value cannot be reduced.

I’ve never understood why the issue has arisen in the first place.  Teachers have kept their end of the bargain by paying into the system. I’m not talking now about what is known as “air time,” whereby employees pad their pensions by buying additional retirement service credit even though they haven’t done the actual additional work.  The California Supreme Court correctly rejected that ploy.

Truth to tell, very few teachers receive the benefits of the present pension system because it is heavily back-end loaded.  As a result, the system is essentially a Ponzi scheme, whereby new teachers pay for the benefits of their older colleagues.  With the economy improving, it’s a propitious time to allow teachers to decide if they would rather accept higher pay at the start of their career in exchange for a lower pension.  That route would likely appeal to teachers who intend to spend only a few years in the classroom before moving on to a different career.

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College admissions hypocrisy

A front-page story in the Los Angeles Times cites a denial from UCLA that it takes into account financial benefits to the university when determining who is admitted (“Admissions issues at UCLA noted in 2014,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 14).  Coming on the heels of the scandal involving crosstown rival USC and other elite universities across the country, the claim is risible.

I say that because colleges and universities today more than ever are businesses.  Like all businesses, they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them.  What school is going to refuse admission to a parent who gives them a multi-million dollar gift?  There are always strings attached to such matters.  Anyone who denies that has never been privy to what takes place behind closed doors in admissions offices.

In “The Price of Admissions,” Daniel Golden explained in detail how money talks.  It should be required reading for reformers who say they are aghast at the scandals reported by the media. Of course, lawmakers are the biggest hypocrites of all because they’re in office largely as a result of the money that made their election possible in the first place.

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Religious students not exempt from vaccination

It’s taken an outbreak of measles in New York City to ask why parents are legally able to keep their children from being vaccinated (“Why Are There Religious Exemptions for Vaccines?” The New York Times, Apr. 12).  Yet 47 states also allow them to oppose vaccination on religious grounds. California is one of the few states that correctly eliminated the religious-belief exemption.

Few politicians are willing to challenge parents, since they tend to form a powerful voting bloc.  It’s to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s credit that he has done so.  But most parents don’t seem to care that by defying the law they are exposing not only their own children to the disease but also others who for legitimate medical reasons cannot be vaccinated.

If religious parents historically had their way, smallpox, polio and other diseases would never have been eliminated.  Although the anti-vaccination movement is depicted as new, it had its beginnings in 1855 when Massachusetts became the first state to make smallpox vaccinations mandatory for public-school children. A few decades later, a pamphlet titled “Vaccination Is the Curse of Childhood” was circulated in Boston.

The courts have repeatedly held that religious beliefs cannot be used as a shield in denying children the right to medical care.  I’m thinking now of parents who have cited Christian Science as the reason they refused treatment for their children, and the children subsequently died.

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‘Disparate impact’ will destroy standards

In attempting to diversify schools, reformers claim discrimination when a test does not produce the desired racial composition of students (“Richard Carranza’s black and white approach is ruining city schools,” New York Post, Apr. 10).  But different outcomes among different groups are not by itself proof of discrimination, which is known as “disparate impact.”

I’ve never understood why the issue ever arose.  Disparities will always exist in outcomes that have nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination.  They occur because people are different, regardless of race.  Some students work harder than others.  Some are simply smarter than others.  Yet reformers refuse to accept this reality.  They persist in seeing discrimination unless results conform to a predetermined pattern.

No race is a monolith.  Just because blacks and Hispanics do not constitute the same percentage of students from other races does not mean prejudice is the reason.  If anything, there is reverse prejudice at work.  I’m thinking now of the suit against Harvard University filed by Asian students claiming that they are the victims of discrimination since they must score much higher on the SAT to be admitted than blacks and Hispanics.

Rather than blaming the messenger, reformers need to ask why blacks and Hispanics do not perform as well on tests.  It’s likely that the test is not to blame.

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Bringing education to the streets

For young people who never received their high school diploma and have given up on ever getting it, the Five Keys Charter School in the poorest neighborhood of San Francisco offers hope (“You Got Your High School Diploma?” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7).  While nothing can ever replace a traditional curriculum on a campus where students interact, Five Keys is doing a commendable job.

Using a dilapidated bus, Five Keys administers a placement test and then through one-on-one instruction its teachers helps students qualify for a high school diploma. The school first opened in a San Francisco jail and now has about 2,000 active students.  Students come from chaotic backgrounds that have been made worse by the choices they’ve made since dropping out of high school.  Nevertheless, most persevere, realizing that Five Keys is their last chance to improve their lives.

The emotional support provided by teachers there often is the difference between success and failure.  I hope the model provided by Five Keys can be replicated in other cities across the nation.  The need is acute and the benefits are incalculable.

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Racial quotas for admissions are still outlawed

It’s easy to forget amid the controversy that efforts to diversify student admissions must be subject to the strict scrutiny standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court (“A Timeline of Key Supreme Court Cases on Affirmative Action,” The New York Times, Mar. 30).

The first time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action was in Marco DeFunis Jr. v. Odegaard.  But since the plaintiff was already in his third year of law school, the suit was moot.  It was not until 1978 in the landmark Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that the high court established the strict scrutiny standard.  It meant that race could be a factor in determining admissions, but racial quotas went too far.  Since then it has consistently upheld that position.

The implications are felt more than ever today, with New York City being the latest venue.  Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza are determined to diversity student enrollment at the city’s eight elite high schools.  They insist that the percentage of those admitted reflect the percentage of students in the city racially.  I fail to see why what they want is not a quota, no matter how justified in their minds their goal is.

Even if the mayor and the chancellor can somehow convince the state Legislature to repeal the Hecht-Calandra Act that requires the schools in question to rely strictly on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in determining admissions, I believe the decision will eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.  When it does, I hope that the high court will not reverse itself on the issue.

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The class-size debate

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed that students learn better in larger classes and President Trump seconded her words, their remarks renewed the debate about the issue (“Class Sizes Will Be the Biggest Ever’ Boasts President Trump,” National Education Policy Center, Apr. 1).

The irony, of course, is that DeVos sent her two sons to Grand Rapids Christian High School, which has an average class size of 24, and Trump’s son is enrolled in St. Andrews, which has a median class size of 15.  Moreover, most politicians’ children have attended schools with equally small class sizes.

I don’t doubt that it’s possible to get a solid education in large classes.  For example, Catholic schools are known for that.  But they are outliers.  Most young people learn more effectively when they are more than just a number to their teachers.  That’s particularly the case with students from chaotic backgrounds who have never experienced a close relationship with an adult before.

During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I rarely had a class with fewer than 33 students.  Not only was it impossible to spend more than a minute or two grading their essays, but it was hard to get to know them individually.  That’s why I question the assertion that larger classes mean better learning.

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