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FIRST STUDENT: (English) I want to learn English. (Italian) I don`t want to forget Italian.
SECOND STUDENT: (English) I study English, (Greek) and my native language is Greek.
THIRD STUDENT: (Spanish) I speak Spanish. (English) I`m learning English.
FOURTH STUDENT: (Creole) I speak Creole and French, (English) and I also speak English.
FIFTH STUDENT: (Spanish) I speak Spanish, (English) and I`m learning English in school.
SIXTH STUDENT: (English) I am bilingual. (Chinese) I am bilingual.
SEVENTH STUDENT: (French) I speak French and Creole, (English) and I speak English also.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Bilingual education -- the new way to help non English- speaking children in our schools. But is it the best way, or a waste of time and money?
Good evening. One of the easiest ways to start an argument these days is to discuss what kind of education our children are getting. Most of the innovations of the past decade are under attack today, and the latest is bilingual education. More than a quarter of a million children whose mother tongue is not English are getting special teaching in their own language. It costs taxpayers on average $376 more per pupil per year than is spent on English-speaking children. The federal government alone this year will spend $135 million on bilingual education, and President Carter wants to raise it to $150 million next year.
But the U.S. Office of Education has just issued a report questioning the value of the bilingual programs. It said that Spanish-English bilingual projects, which had been studied for several years, did not appear to produce gains in student achievement over what would be expected from traditional all-English classes. But there are critics who have far more negative views than that. Tonight, is bilingual education necessary? Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, most of us do not speak German, Italian, Armenian or the other languages our immigrant ancestors spoke when they got here. Shutting the language of the old country was considered a crucial first step into the American melting pot: Americans speak English, so we will speak English -- only English. That was the basic tenet of being Americanized. And it pretty much remained so until the early `60s. Then a new interest in ethnic and cultural identification sprang up. It began with the blacks but soon spread to others. On a more concrete level, it was also then that 500,000 anti-Castro Cubans came to the United States, mostly to the Miami area. Unable to function well in English-speaking schools, the Cuban children were taught in Spanish. Other areas of the country with large Hispanic populations started doing the same thing.
In 1968 Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, and in 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court also got involved. It ruled that the San Francisco schools discriminated against Chinese-American students because of language difficulties. "Students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education," wrote Justice William Douglas. As a result of all of this, the concept of bilingual education became both a legally and an educationally accepted concept for school here in the melting pot. But now, as Robin said, some are having second thoughts about it. Robin?
MacNEIL: Bilingual education has two distinct objectives. One is transitional, or temporary, use of the foreign language to bring a child as quickly as possible into the English-speaking mainstream. The other is called maintenance -- sustaining the culture and pride of the foreign origin. Critics of bilingual education believe the two aims frequently get confused. One outspoken critic is Dr. Howard Hurwitz, a former New York high school principal, now a columnist, lecturer, and school consultant. Dr. Hurwitz, what`s wrong with bilingual education?
HOWARD HURWITZ: The U.S. Office of Education has just reached a conclusion -- and it cost them $1.5 million to reach it -- that I reached in 1969 when I first started writing about bilingual education. It is pretty much here fakery; it does the very children who must learn English the greatest disadvantage, because what bilingual education does is require that a child in school learn mathematics, science and social studies in Spanish -- because that`s the big group that is involved.
MacNEIL: About seventy-five percent, I believe.
HURWITZ: I would say so. And what they do learn is a reinforcement of Spanish, and they learn no English at all or a heavily accented English. As a result, the very children who are supposed to benefit from education in America and to learn English -- and there are other ways of learning it that we may go into later -- are the ones who are most disadvantaged. So I have opposed bilingual education, and it`s nice to know that the U.S. Office of Education, ten years later, is getting around to a point of view that I and many others have shared for a decade.
MacNEIL: So your main objection is that it doesn`t do what it`s intended to do, which is to help the children faster to learn English and to get into the English mainstream.
HURWITZ: Yes, that is correct.
MacNEIL: The question that occurs to me is, can children of this largely Hispanic culture, which is the predominant group who are benefiting from these projects, can it be as successfully thrown into the old so-called sink-or-swim method of learning, English as past groups of immigrants were?
HURWITZ: I`m opposed to a sink-or-swim idea. These children must be helped to learn English. But we have had for some thirty years a program which is now being under financed because of the bicultural influx of English as a second language, where children, whether they are Spanish in background or French in background, Italian or Greek, learn English through English. They learn a survival vocabulary quickly -- what their name is, where they live -- and in my-experience, which goes back in this program thirty years, because I used it with Chinese children on the lower East Side in New York, within six months to a year and a half I was amazed at how these children learned to speak English. I know I couldn`t do it. But children somehow, when they are taught English through English in a meaningful manner by teachers who are trained to do it, do learn. So I`m opposed to sink-or- swim. But I am equally opposed to bilingual education as the U.S. Office of Education has propagated it in the past decade.
MacNEIL: What do you say to Justice Douglas` dictum which Jim quoted, that the children who do not understand English "are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education"?
HURWITZ: Jim probably read the whole decision, which is quite different. What he read was a little bit misleading. What Justice Douglas said was, the children who are Chinese in San Francisco have a right to learn English, but nowhere in Nichols versus Lau, the decision, L-a-u, did the judge tell us how to teach these foreign children English. That was left to the educator. And unfortunately, you have these militant -particularly Puerto Rican groups in the East and Chicanos in the Southwest -- who wanted to bring teachers into the school system at good salaries, and the only way to get them in was to propagate this idea of bilingual education. And so what you have are a lot of teachers teaching mathematics, science and social studies in Spanish, and they don`t know those subjects; many of them don`t even speak Spanish well, I understand from other Hispanic friends of mine.
MacNEIL: What would you do with bilingual education if yours was the decision?
HURWITZ: Well, let me make it clear that I want the Spanish speaking children to keep their culture, to continue speaking Spanish. And as a high school principal, I offered Spanish-speaking children who came from Cuba, who came from Puerto Rico, the opportunity of continuing their study of Spanish in Spanish -- Spanish is a foreign language, but it was a class organized for native Spanish-speaking children. So I want people to be bilingual; I think it`s a great advantage. But I don`t believe they are furthered in their own aims in the United States by reinforcing their Spanish. What is going to happen is that they won`t learn English well enough, and the mobility, which is the pride and resource of America, will be denied to them because wherever they go their English will be so poor that they will suffer economically and, I think, socially
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Needless to say, not everyone agrees with Mr. Hurwitz` strong negative view of bilingual education. One in particular who doesn`t is Hernan La Fontaine, executive administrator of the Office of Bilingual Education for the New York City Board of Education. Mr. La Fontaine is also the immediate past president of the National Association for Bilingual Education. Dr. Hurwitz says bilingual education doesn`t work, Mr. La Fontaine. Is he right or wrong?
HERNAN La FONTAINE: Well, it`s clear that he`s wrong. Not only has he again distorted the definition of bilingual education, he has also not read the report properly, because I have a copy right here which says very clearly that both the control and the experimental group generally either maintained or improved their percentile ranks from pre-test to post-test. And I`m talking about English reading vocabulary tests. So I think a great deal of the publicity and the so-called "attack" on bilingual education has not only been misplaced but misinterpreted. I think perhaps some of our critics and opponents ought to first read the evidence very carefully. And when you read the evidence very carefully, I think you begin to see that yes, there are areas of improvement, as there would be in any innovative educational program. And I for one, as many of our colleagues, would agree that we will do everything possible to improve the quality of our programs. But I don`t think we can throw the baby out with the bath water. Certainly we have seen for many years in our own schools that our success in teaching reading to regular kids in regular programs is rather limited, both in reading and in math. Well, do we then turn around and say, Let`s not teach reading and mathematics any more? Hardly. And yet that`s the kind of approach that we seem to hear from Dr. Hurwitz and other opponents, who apparently aren`t interested in looking at improving the program but simply eliminating it, as the only solution. I see bilingual education instead as a very viable educational approach to help youngsters who for many years in the traditional program have been barred from a meaningful participation in the learning process and have therefore been pushed out, have dropped out - - in general have been alienated not only from the school system but from society at large, leaving primarily through frustration and failure.
LEHRER: Do you see the basic goal of bilingual education to be to teach children who have another native tongue to be able to function in English in the United States society, or to further their cultural back ground, whether it be Hispanic or any other?
La FONTAINE: I don`t think the two are diametrically opposed. I think we can do both.
LEHRER: Well, which is most important to you, as an educator?
La FONTAINE: I think in the United States of America we have to have the children learn English, and there is no one who disagrees with that.
I think you can ask -- not that I think; I am positive -- that you can ask any bilingual educator across the nation -- and I travel widely across the nation, I can say this with confidence -- everyone agrees that we want the children to learn English well. We want them to master the English language. But we`re saying that in order to do this it does not necessarily require a sacrifice of the language skills that they have already in their native tongue.
LEHRER: Well, I`m trying to understand now where you and Dr. Hurwitz particularly disagree on this. Would you favor or support a cram course in English for a child who comes to school, does not speak English -- as
Dr. Hurwitz says, to teach that child English in a hurry so that child can immediately start functioning in the regular English-speaking classroom, or do you favor a continuation of basically Spanish or whatever the other language is and then take English kind of as a sidelight, or what? How do you differ in terms of the mechanics in the classroom?
La FONTAINE: I think the best way is to describe very succinctly what a bilingual program is. Briefly, one essential component is teaching English as a second language.
LEHRER: As a second language.
La FONTAINE: That`s right. If they already have one language, then the next language is a second language.
LEHRER: You`re right. Okay. (Laughing.)
La FONTAINE: Then the other component would be whatever subject areas we normally get in any school system, given to them in the language they understand; and, of course, continuing with their native language. Therefore, what we`re saying is, yes, you give them a pretty intensive dose of English -- and by the way, contrary to Mr. Hurwitz`s opinion of how much English is given in these programs, I can tell you for a fact, not an opinion, that the average amount of time given in these programs, at least, here in New York City schools, is around forty-seven percent of the time, in English. I think most people don`t take the trouble to sit down and analyze the programs carefully, but I can tell you that when you count in all of the instructional time provided in English it comes to about forty- seven percent of the time. As the program continues, they will get more instruction in the English language, yes.. But it doesn`t mean that you must eliminate instruction in the native language. If we start that in the early grades and continue up through the grades, at whatever point the student reaches proficiency in the English language, that`s when a decision has to be made. That is to say, at that point -you don`t have to have a preconceived idea of whether you`re going to take them out of the program or not -- at that point, an educational decision, not a legal decision or something mandated by court, but an educational decision has to be made, in consultation with parents and community, as to whether you`re going to allow the child to participate further in a bilingual program or not.
LEHRER: All right, thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes; let`s get another view. Even for those sympathetic to the idea of bilingual education, making it work and working to implement it can be frustrating. We go now to Boston, to Kay Jones, who`s deeply involved in developing bilingual curricula and teaching materials and in training teachers. Dr. Jones is visiting assistant professor of elementary education at the University of New Mexico, and is in Boston on a study project. She`s with us in the studios of Public Television Station WGBH. Dr. Jones, from your experience, do you agree with the Office of Education finding that I quoted -- and I did quote a complete sentence from the report -- that bilingual education does not produce gains in achievement, or appear to produce gains in achievement, as compared with what would be expected in the traditional classroom?
KAY JONES: I think Dr. Hurwitz and Mr. La Fontaine covered the theoretical aspects very well. I would like to talk a bit about some specific instances of why I think bilingual education may not be appear ing to be working. The supposition is that you take a child and you teach them in the language that they know best. What happens many times in bilingual classrooms is that you get thirty children in that classroom; five of them may speak only Spanish, fifteen may speak both, and whatever else it takes to make up thirty only speak English. So that you get a teacher who is supposed to teach all of these children in a bilingual setting, when in fact the language mix is so mixed that she can`t treat all the children the same. I`ve seen classrooms where the teacher speaks in fact very little English at all and all the instruction is in Spanish, when in fact at least twenty of the children, some of whom are black, are in the classroom trying to learn Spanish as a second language. The objective is to teach kids in the language they know best; that doesn`t always work.
MacNEIL: Could I ask you another question based on your practical observation? When it works to your satisfaction, does the student move into the English mainstream faster than he would have done if he`d just been plunged into an English-speaking class?
JONES: I would say probably yes. The strongest example of that is children who come from Mexico who only speak Spanish; they come into a neighborhood where in the community there is a school in which they can study in Spanish as well as English. That helps their transition a great deal. People talk a lot about how fast children from Mexico adapt, how much they already know when they come to the schools, and they move into the programs much faster.
MacNEIL: What other difficulties do you see in implementing these projects? There are about 700 of them around the country; what other frustrations do you encounter in making them work well?
JONES: I think one of the most fundamental problems is simply that phrase, "the language they know best." People translate that to mean Spanish, but there are an awful lot of different forms of Spanish that vary from even the textbooks that are used or the Spanish that the teacher or the children speak. Most of my experience has been in south Texas, and an awful lot of the children don`t speak -- in fact, most of the children don`t speak -- a standard Spanish; many of them speak a mixture of Spanish and English. If that`s the language they know best, that should be the language that`s used for the primary instruction. Unfortunately, it`s not many times, it`s a standard Spanish out of a textbook that comes from Puerto Rico or Buenos Aires or Madrid. And it`s like, "We`re going to really help these kids in Georgia who only speak Southern English, because we`re going to bring textbooks from Australia and England and New Zealand..." There`s a big variety of the Spanish that is in fact used. An awful lot of the teachers - - in fact, I would say at least eighty to ninety percent of the teachers in bilingual programs -- don`t speak the Spanish that`s in the textbooks they`re supposed to be using; so there`s that extra gap.
MacNEIL: Well, let`s pursue these ideas a bit further. Jim?
LEHRER: First of all, Dr. Hurwitz, how does your practical experience compare with Dr. Jones` in terms of teaching bilingual education?
HURWITZ: I have visited a number of classes, including those in Spanish Harlem, and I have been amazed to listen to children who speak English quite well in classes in English where the teacher is conducting the class in Spanish. And so I feel that they are reinforcing the Spanish when the saturation should be in English. It`s very interesting to note also, with all of this admiration for bicultural education and bilingual education, that when you have this net migration now out of New York to Puerto Rico, when the New York Spanish-speaking kid gets back to Puerto Rico he is not learning English at all down there, they are emphasizing Spanish exclusively; and they now call these New Yorkers who are Puerto Ricans in origin "New Ricans," a kind of term that is ridicule. The point I`m making is this, that in Puerto Rico they are not interested in teaching children English and Spanish, it`s just Spanish. And what the Spanish-speaking militant group has done here is try to enforce the teaching of children in Spanish so that when they return to Puerto Rico, as many of them do, they will not be handicapped in making the transition from the New York schools to the Puerto Rican schools. This is a side factor, but nonetheless a very significant one. I am opposed, as I`ve indicated, to bilingual education as it is being practiced, for several reasons. The poor teachers who are brought into the system, the lack of subject matter of these teachers, and the fact that the children are developing an accented English when they have the opportunity of learning English as it should be learned.
LEHRER: What about that, Mr. La Fontaine? Mr. Hurwitz mentioned that a moment ago: learning accented English rather than -- I guess the alternative is real English.
La FONTAINE: (Laughing.) Sheer nonsense. Both in terms of Dr. Hurwitz` characterization of accented English as the subject being taught in the schools. If he has seen one or two teachers of that type in bilingual programs, I can tell him that I have seen hundreds of others, except that the accent was not Hispanic; it may have been other kinds of accents.
LEHRER: Let me ask you this, Mr. La Fontaine -- also it relates to what Mr. Hurwitz has said and to what I`ve read today -- that a lot of this bilingual education movement is a result of political pressure, ethnic political pressure from various activists who are interested in maintaining a cultural identification, et cetera, rather than interest in teaching children how to speak English and function in the United States society. Is that true?
La FONTAINE: No, I don`t think that`s true either. I`m not going to deny the fact that there may be some political motivation as a corollary kind of rationale, but I don`t think that is the primary motivation.
On the contrary, I think that the pressure that was necessary to establish the legislation would of course have to be political pressure, and that political pressure was used for the purpose of establishing programs to help these youngsters.
LEHRER: Let me ask Dr. Jones -- you said your experience was in New Mexico, in Texas, in the Southwest. Is that what got bilingual education started out there, political pressure from the Chicano movement primarily?
JONES: Sure. One of the gentlemen mentioned a moment ago that no one in the United States actually feels that Spanish should be more important than English in bilingual education. I know a school district in
Texas that is trying to develop a complete program through high school so that no child will ever have to learn English if he chooses not to.
Yeah, that`s what started it, but as Mr. La Fontaine pointed out, you have to get pressure sometimes to get people to move.
LEHRER: Dr. Hurwitz, back to you. A point that Dr. La Fontaine made -- and it comes up continually in bilingual education discussions -- is, teach the child anything, whether it be math, geography or what ever, teach the child in the language he or she knows best. You disagree with that concept, do you not?
HURWITZ: I disagree with that because I`ve already advanced the importance and the success of English as a second language where they learn over a period of a half year or a year or a year and a half how to speak English, and then they are merged into these other programs where they learn in English.
But getting back to that politics, not only is it political, but I have read the Puerto Rican Development Agency report, Aspira, their thinktank; they not only refer to the United States as a colonial power, but
they demand that Spanish be taught in American schools because they feel that there are large segments now of certain areas in the Southwest and certainly in the Northeast, in New York particularly, where the people do not need another language, the various barrios. And so they demand the right of their children to learn Spanish. It is political, and it is entirely political in that sense.
LEHRER: All right. Robin?
MacNEIL: You don`t agree with that.
La FONTAINE: Well, I`m not saying that I don`t agree, but they certainly have-- every American citizen in the United States has a right to participate in this political democracy no matter what language he does it in.
MacNEIL: That`s true; but for instance, unlike Canada, where I come from, where the promise was implicit in the constitution that the French minority would be allowed to maintain and were constitutionally entitled to maintain their language and culture, there`s no implicit promise here, is there, of that?
La FONTAINE: There`s no implicit promise, nor is there any implicit prohibition.
MacNEIL: Well, I can`t argue with you on that. Let me ask you where you all finally think the future of bilingual education should be. Let`s start with you, Dr. Jones in Boston. Do you think, in view of the troubles with it, or the questions raised, that it should be scrapped, it should be expanded and better funded? After all, only a quarter of a million children are receiving it now out of, I believe, a potential three million. Should it be expanded, or what do you think should be done with it?
JONES: I believe a couple of the reports that have come out in the past year have talked about the need for more research into the processes of learning two languages. I don`t think that`s necessary at all. I think there are a lot of things that could be cleaned up about what people are doing right now in bilingual education and we`d get a much more effective result from it.
MacNEIL: Does that need more money from the state or federal level, or does it just mean better administration of the existing program?
JONES: I think it needs better administration.
MacNEIL: What would you like to see done with bilingual education? Would you like to see is greatly expanded to include more children, or improved, or treated as a continuing experiment, or what?
La FONTAINE: Well, I`d like to ensure that the opportunity be available for all those children who require it.
MacNEIL: You don`t want to do yourself out of a job.
La FONTAINE: Well, no; I`ve been in the system twenty-one years without bilingual education, so it really doesn`t affect my job at all. And nor does it affect the jobs of many other people in our school systems.
I simply think that we are in the throes of possibly providing a fantastic opportunity for millions of youngsters -- literally millions of youngsters -- in our country who, in other circumstances, might have been totally lost to this society.
MacNEIL: Would you agree that the jury`s still out on whether it`s actually working?
La FONTAINE: No. The verdict has already been found that it does work.
MacNEIL: It does work. And finally, in a few seconds, what would you like to see done with it?
HURWITZ: I would like to see Congress, as soon as it understands what bilingual education is, withdraw all federal funds. However, in those areas where there is control of the dollar by a local board of education, if they want to continue with this mindless program, that`s their problem.
MacNEIL: Okay. Several very distinct views. Thank you very much, Dr. Jones in Boston this evening, for joining us.
JONES: Thank you
MacNEIL: And good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: Thank you, Dr. Hurwitz, Mr. La Fontaine. That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
Bilingual Education
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This episode features a discussion on Bilingual Education. The guests are Howard Hurwitz, Herman La Fontaine, Kay Jones, Carol Buckland. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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Race and Ethnicity
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Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Bilingual Education,” 1978-05-15, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 20, 2024,
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APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Bilingual Education. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from