Thursday, October 23, 1997

Ron Unz, chairman, English for the Children, and Joseph Jaramillo, staff attorney, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, discuss if bilingual education failed, and if it should be improved or eliminated.

Recorded on Thursday, October 23, 1997

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. The millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the century spoke dozens of languages, but to get jobs and to assimilate into American life, the immigrants and their children had no choice but to learn English. Today, however: Hoy en dia immigrantes y sus niños no necesitan saber hablar inglès. [Nowadays, immigrants and their children don't need to speak English.] They can take their naturalization exams in their native languages. They can vote on ballots in their native languages. And, the subject of today's program, they can enroll their children in bilingual education programs in which their children will receive a great deal of their instruction not in English but in, once again, their native languages. Con nosotros hay dos invitados. [With us today, two guests.]

Ron Unz is the author of an initiative on the California ballot that would end bilingual education. He believes that bi-lingual education should be replaced with intensive English immersion programs for immigrant children. Joseph Jaramillo of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund disagrees. He believes bi-lingual education is essential for helping immigrant children assimilate into American life. As you'll see, our conversation became-- muy animada. [Very animated.]

ROBINSON What's wrong with the bilingual educations system in California today?

UNZ Well, it doesn't really work. You see, the problem is that bilingual education today in California is not really bilingual education. It is primarily Spanish-only instruction.

JARAMILLO That's completely wrong, Mr. Unz.

ROBINSON Hold on, we'll come back.

UNZ To give you an example of what I'm talking about, these are official records which anybody can look at. Half of all the bilingual students in California are in the Los Angels school district. So, in other words, L.A. is half of the entire state with regard to these programs. For the last ten years the policy of the Los Angeles unified school district for all these children has been that they should be given no more than thirty minutes a day of English instruction and five hours and thirty minutes a day of Spanish.

JARAMILLO Is that across all grade levels, Mr. Unz?

UNZ For the first few years when they start school.

JARAMILLO So Kindergarten through third grade? Or second grade?

UNZ Kindergarten through third grade sounds about right. But what I'm trying to say is that for the first few years when these children start school many of them are coming from families, for example, where everybody speaks Spanish at home-- in other words, they are really Spanish speaking children. They watch Spanish language T.V. They listen to Spanish radio. People in the community speak Spanish and then when they go to school they get thirty minutes of English and five hours and thirty minutes of Spanish. It's no wonder that so few of them ever learn English during that period.

ROBINSON So, few learn English? That, in effect, is your principal charge. That this is not helping people assimilate into American life.

UNZ And the one statistic which you can point to-- the trouble is a lot of this data simply has never been gathered by the bilingual authorities --some people think because the data would be so negative towards the program-- but the bottom line number is that right now a quarter of all the children in California public schools are classified as non-English proficient --they don't know English. And, of the ones who don't know English, only 5 or 6 percent learn English each year. In other words, 95 percent per year do not learn English. And when you're talking about young children, it should be very easy for them to learn another language.

JARAMILLO I need to interject just to clarify. That is a very misleading statistic.

ROBINSON Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.

ROBINSON Ron's fundamental point is a huge proportion of kids --up to a quarter of them in California schools-- go into bilingual education program--

JARAMILLO Peter let me stop right there because only a third of limited English proficient kids actually attend a bilingual education program. 70 percent are in a program that does not use the primary language, much like the initiative that Mr. Unz proposes.

ROBINSON So what's your guess about the proportion who are in a bilingual education programs? He says a quarter...

UNZ 30 percent.

JARAMILLO 30 percent. I agree with him on that.

ROBINSON Oh, okay. So it's a huge proportion...

JARAMILLO No, 30 percent of limited English proficient kids.

ROBINSON So it's 30 percent of 25 percent. Okay.

JARAMILLO So what Mr. Unz is doing is scape-goating a program that hasn't even gotten off the ground.

ROBINSON Hold on. I want to know what your views are. So, it's a large number of kids, not as large as I had thought, but it's a large number of kids-- they go into the program and they fail to learn English adequately. Is that true or false in your judgement?

JARAMILLO That is false. That is a vast generalization. As I said, there are, even within bilingual education, nine or ten different programs. I can point to --even in your own backyard-- East Palo Alto Cesar Chavez Academy where the re-designation rate at fifth grade is close to 70 percent. So that's a 70 percent success rate which, if you look at the whole statewide statistics, is phenomenal. It's very amazing and what we ought to be doing is emulating a bilingual program like Cesar Chavez in making other bilingual programs work. The reason why some programs do not have such a high success rate is because we don't have adequately trained teachers who know how to speak the students' primary language. We don't have adequate resources--

ROBINSON But you are conceding that there are pretty severe weaknesses here and there in the system. You're not going to make a kind of full court defense of the system as it stands now.

JARAMILLO The problem is not in the concept because clearly it can work and we ought to emulate those programs that work. The problem is in the implementation and the problem is in school district personnel and school personnel who are not adequately trained, who don't have the resources and also who may buy into this incentive that if we keep these kids in these programs longer we will get more state and federal money.

UNZ That's a very good point.

JARAMILLO And what we ought to do to address that point--

ROBINSON Joseph says bilingual education works, at least in concept, and Ron disagrees. So what does Ron propose that we do?

ROBINSON Mr. Unz, in your initiative what do you want to do to change this system?

UNZ Well, essentially our initiative reverses the current system and it makes bilingual education truly voluntary. In other words, it doesn't outlaw bilingual education but it says that those parents who really want their children not to be taught English immediately when they start school-- they want their children in a bilingual-- which really is a Spanish- only program--

JARAMILLO It's not Spanish-only Mr. Unz.

ROBINSON Make notes on what he said that's wrong and then I'll come back to you. Go ahead.

UNZ The point is those parents who really don't want their children taught English immediately when they start school, which is a very small number I think, would have to affirmatively seek a waiver in order to have the child placed or kept in a bilingual program.

ROBINSON Alright. So the opening presumption is the kids learn English and the parents have to take action to opt out.

UNZ Exactly. The key point there is, you see, when you look at the current system-- California is a very large state and I'm sure in a state this large --where I think there are fifty thousand different schools in the whole state-- I'm sure you can find individual schools or classrooms or even maybe small school districts where bilingual education actually does work. I'm sure there are actually a lot of individual cases where it might work, but overall statewide only 5 percent of the children, a year, learn English or so.

JARAMILLO But only 30 percent of those children are in a bilingual education classroom, so it's really the 70 percent that are not in a bilingual education program that are accounting for this failure rate.

UNZ But they aren't. It's the children who aren't being taught English who don't learn it.

JARAMILLO So, the children in English immersion programs which have to flash through this chart, which probably would represent this ESL line here. This is a national study of seven hundred thousand English learners.

ROBINSON English immersion is roughly what you would like to propose?

UNZ Exactly, but--

JARAMILLO Outlawing the use of another language in the classroom--

ROBINSON Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.

JARAMILLO --even punishing teachers for speaking another language--

ROBINSON We'll be punishing you for speaking English, in a moment. Silence for a moment. Pray, silence. Yes?

UNZ The point that we have is that, you see, almost all of... I'd like to just step back a little bit. When you're talking about older children- now there are children who are twelve or thirteen or fourteen who come to the United States not knowing English- I think you can make a very valid case in favor of bilingual education. In other words, teaching them academic subjects in their native language so they don't fall behind academically while they' re learning English. Now I don't know if the case is right or wrong. A lot of people I've talked to even think of that age, it's better that the children learn English as quickly as possible, through English immersion. But the point is almost all of the children we're talking about in these programs start school when they're five or six because they're native born Americans.

ROBINSON Okay. So let me understand. Your initiative has two points. One is the presumption is they'll learn English and the parents have to opt out. And the second point is the way in which they will learn English is English immersion that lasts how long?

UNZ Generally less than one year.

ROBINSON Less than one year. So you take kids who speak Spanish...

UNZ Who are five or six years old.

ROBINSON Now, you're open to debate at the older, at the higher grade levels. But what we're talking about is the early grade levels, they go into a special English immersion program...

UNZ To intensively learn English as quickly as possible.

ROBINSON And then they move into the ordinary, regular classrooms in English. Alright. Now, I know that he (Unz) thinks that bilingual education as it stands now doesn't work and you (Jaramillo) think that it does work in principle and needs help in practice. Let's shift now to talking about his (Unz') initiative which he thinks will work and you (Jaramillo) think...

JARAMILLO It will be devastating to the limited English proficient kids of this state and to our educational system.

ROBINSON Now lets get back... Here's where I wanted to see your chart. You have a point to make about different kinds of ways of teaching kids English. Right?

JARAMILLO Right. This is a national study done by Wayne Thomas in Virginia out of George Mason University and it basically tracks seven hundred thousand limited English proficient students in five major urban school districts in the country.

ROBINSON Is any of those California, do you happen to know?

JARAMILLO Well, they keep it blind because they don't want anybody to interfere with the results.

ROBINSON But there's a lot of kids. Seven hundred thousand.

JARAMILLO Seven hundred thousand. They track them K through twelve, the duration of their program. So this began in the 1980's and it basically tried to see which one was most successful.

ROBINSON What's the best one? What's the top one?

JARAMILLO The top one was two-way bilingual education where you have English speakers and Spanish speakers in the same classroom learning in Spanish and English so that there's cross-pollination. And this line right here represents the average native English speakers academic score on this English reading standardized test.

ROBINSON Where does his version...

UNZ ...not on the chart, unfortunately.

JARAMILLO Well his version would come close to English as a second language, where you're being taught only in English and they have a very low failure rate as you can see.

UNZ But it isn't one of those cases on the chart.

JARAMILLO Well it's worse than one of those cases because it would only last one year and there's no credible studies showing that you can learn English in one year.

ROBINSON Hang on. Wait a minute. If immigrant children can't learn English in one year, how long does it take?

ROBINSON Do you have educators of some kind who have done studies to support your position?

UNZ Certainly. It basically shows that immersion, sheltered English immersion, or sometimes its called structured English immersion, is far and away the most effective means of young children learning English, which is pretty obvious because also it's backed up by common sense. When you talk to children, or people who come here from other countries, just people who you would know who aren't either pro-bilingual or anti-bilingual, aren't involved in this debate at all, as I have and you ask them, for example, how long it takes young children who come to the United States to learn another language like English. They all agree that -you know you're talking about six or seven or eight year old children- it takes just a few months. Up to maybe a year. A year seems awfully long. The theory of bilingual education which all these studies argue for says that it takes seven years for a young child to learn English. In fact a new study came out...

JARAMILLO Five to seven years.

ROBINSON You buy that? You buy the five to seven year figure?

UNZ That is the orthodox theory.

JARAMILLO But you're not only trying to teach them English but you want them to keep up in the academic subjects and under his program they're not going to keep up in the academic programs because they will be learning English for only one year and when they come out of that program, they're going to be one year behind in science, math, social studies and they still won't know how to speak English at a level competent with their classmates.

ROBINSON So you're going to be feeding them into the English speaking school system at a snail's pace -five to seven years.


ROBINSON Okay, now look. I have to say that when Ron talks about common sense it appeals to me and I'm going tell you what I'm thinking so that you can answer it, because if you're going to be fighting this ballot initiative, there are going to be a lot of people thinking the way I am thinking and that is... My wife is of Cuban decent, she speaks Spanish to the kids, we have four little kids, the oldest is six and I can tell you that they are like sponges for learning language, they pick it up extremely quickly. The notion of five to seven years to achieve proficiency in a language... If I were a parent it would drive me crazy if homework were coming home... -I'm giving you my comments as sort of my gut reaction- would drive me nuts if for five or seven years homework's coming home in two languages... that just seems crazy on the face of it. How do you respond to that, Joseph?

JARAMILLO Well, I have three responses. The first response is...

ROBINSON It's television. You might have time for two. Go ahead.

JARAMILLO You have a choice, if you don't want your kid to learn that way, put him in English immersion.

ROBINSON And that's genuinely easy to do?


ROBINSON Okay. Let's put it this way. Is it harder or easier than registering a car in the state of California? In other words, do I then have to get entrapped by the state education bureaucracy?

JARAMILLO All you have to do is... You get the letter saying what you're child has been assessed, at what level, and you go back and say I want my child in this program.

ROBINSON So your first answer is that you can opt out of this particular program and the second answer is?

JARAMILLO The second answer is, okay, let's use Ron Unz' approach, it's still going to take three to four years and when they come out of it they're going to be two years behind.

ROBINSON He (Unz) says one year.

UNZ Less than one year.

JARAMILLO He's wrong. There's no way that...

ROBINSON You just don't believe it?

JARAMILLO There's no credible study showing that you can learn English to perform competently in academics at your grade level in one year. You'll spend the whole year learning English. You'll come out being able to talk "playground" English. Your peers will be able to talk at first or second grade level. They will have had the advantage of a year more of science, social studies, mathematics. You will not have had that. You will constantly be trying to catch up with them and the fact is you're never going to catch up and it's likely that you're...

ROBINSON Never going...? You really believe that...? Okay.

JARAMILLO There will be exceptional people that will catch up but it's going to be very hard to catch up at that level. My third answer is, do you want your child to be able to succeed academically, that's the question.

ROBINSON Obviously, yes.


ROBINSON Now also if I'm an immigrant, particularly if I'm an immigrant... I don't know about immigrants from extremely developed countries (i.e. Israel), but if I'm an immigrant from Mexico which in our state of California we have most immigrants from Mexico. I came to this country to better my life and the life for my children. So I want them to become Americans. The evidence there is overwhelming. I want them to become Americans. Okay, so...

JARAMILLO They're going to become Americans most likely after fifth grade if they start in kindergarten, and what they will do is gradually, you know, kindergarten, they will spend twenty percent of their day learning in English and learning how to speak and write and read English and they will spend the rest of the day learning the core curriculum in their language because they're already at a level where they can take off. And then in first and second grade it gradually becomes fifty/fifty and by fifth grade they're ready to jump into an English speaking classroom -a mainstream classroom and succeed academically. They're ready to go in and outperform or perform at the same level as the native English speakers.

ROBINSON You speak about this with real excitement in your voice, they're ready to jump... Joseph claims it takes time to learn English, but time may be just what Joseph himself doesn't have.

ROBINSON Now, Ron has been cris-crossing the state in favor of his initiative. You've been cris-crossing the state against his initiative. He says he runs into parents all the time who are fed up... Do you run into parents all the time who are pleased with the situation at present?

JARAMILLO They're not pleased because bilingual education is already being eliminated. I've got parents in San Rafael that are mad because their child has been pulled out of a bilingual education classroom where they were getting straight As and they are being put in a mainstream English classroom where they are now getting Cs and Ds.

ROBINSON So what you want is more bilingual education, more resources for the system as it stands.

JARAMILLO That's going to be better, but at least, at bare minimum, schools have to have flexibility and they should not be straight-jacketed into an approach that has never been proven to work.

ROBINSON Here's your big problem: The Los Angeles Times conducted a poll in October and it found -you (Unz) as a matter of fact could just take the rest of the year off- it found about 80 percent in favor of Mr. Unz' initiative. And, furthermore, it found that among Latino Californians the support was even stronger, about 84 percent in favor. Now that strikes me as a serious problem for Joseph. How do you deal with that?

JARAMILLO Well I think there are a lot of flaws with that poll. It basically was a one question poll asking, "Would you support your children learning English in the classroom and being taught only in English?", which is pretty accurate of what Unz' initiative does. What it did not ask -and even though it seems contradictory, if you would have asked another question -and there are polls to support this- "Do you support bilingual education?", you will also see a majority of Latino parents saying "Yes, I do".

UNZ Well, I just know the personal experiences I've had. For example, when we went- I've gone out a couple of times to East L.A., Whittier Boulevard in the heart of Latino East Los Angeles, just set up a little table with a couple of other people, taken our petitions and seeing how many of the Latinos walking by would be willing to sign our petition to essentially get rid of bilingual education and make sure all the children are taught English as soon as they go to school. 90 percent of them signed the petition. Many of them registered to vote for the first time simply so that they can sign our initiative. And many of them have horror stories that they tell us about that crazy bilingual program where they have to go to school five times to force the administration to teach their little brother English, or their cousin wasn't being taught English, or the relatives weren't being taught English, and they think the system's crazy.

ROBINSON Joseph let me ask you this... Even Joseph and Ron agree. Latino students are in trouble.

ROBINSON Here is what I take to be the fundamental problem that each of you is attempting to address and that is that in this state Latino students consistently underperform all other students. They score the lowest of any ethnic group in the SAT tests and they have the highest dropout rate which is about 40 percent. Now this is a decade and a half - two decades or so after bilingual education was instituted. Why? Why are they underperforming?

JARAMILLO Well there's a number of reasons and it has very little to do with bilingual education because only one-sixth of Latinos are in a bilingual education program. You have to remember that only half of Latinos are English learners. The other half already knows English. And among that one half only a third are in a bilingual education program, so it's silly to say bilingual education is the cause of those failures. But I can give you some comment as someone who works in the community. I attribute a lot of the difficulty that Latinos have academically in this state... A lot of it has to do with lower teacher expectations. A lot of it has to do with poorer resources whether it be in the inner city or whether it be in the rural central valley. A lot of it has to do with parents not exactly knowing how to get their kids to succeed because they don't have an educational background.

ROBINSON So these are deep cultural problems?

JARAMILLO I wouldn't say cultural, but I would say environmental.

ROBINSON I don't mean to blame Latino culture, but, alright, environmental... That Ron's ballot initiative wouldn't touch.

JARAMILLO I don't think it's going to make a dent. I think what it's going to do is increase the dropout rate because if you only allow schools one rigid approach, a one-size fits all, straightjacket, then they're not going to be able to adapt to the needs of their students. In other words, sometimes they might need to use sheltered English. Sometimes they might need to use primary language. But if you do as his initiative does and you outlaw the use of a foreign language in the classroom and you hold teachers personally liable for speaking another language...

ROBINSON Does your initiative do that?

UNZ It certainly doesn't. It doesn't even outlaw bilingual education. In other words, bilingual education will continue in California if our initiative passes, but the only children in the bilingual programs will be the ones whose parents want them in the programs. And according to the polling data, very few parents like bilingual education. So my guess is our initiative will eliminate about 98 percent of all the bilingual education classrooms in California.

ROBINSON But because the parents will choose.

UNZ Because they'll choose English.

JARAMILLO But Peter, it's not just bilingual education. There are a number of methods in between English immersion and primary language instruction to teach limited English proficient children English.

ROBINSON Just administratively, Joseph, aren't you asking for a huge draw on the state's educational resources? Because you refer again and again to the variety of different kinds of programs which -no doubt, as a parent, I'd like the biggest smorgeshboard to choose from that I could get, but isn't that administratively just hugely expensive and difficult to run?

JARAMILLO Well it's not because a school basically says "we're either going to have this program or this program or we can do both", but under Mr. Unz' initiative what they're going to have to do is, they're going to have to be mandated to provide sheltered English immersion. And then if there are 20 parents that get a waiver, they're going to have to provide a bilingual class in the same school and that's going to be administratively a nightmare.

ROBINSON Let me ask you a sort of a summing up question, Joseph. Enough about educational nightmares. Let's talk about what Joseph and Ron would like to see.

ROBINSON If Ron's dream comes true, next June his initiative will be enacted by the voters of California. What do you want? What would be your dream for correcting the problems in the educational system as regards particularly Latinos that you see now? If we could give you anything you wanted, what would you do?

JARAMILLO With respect to making sure that English learners learn English and succeed academically.


JARAMILLO To achieve that goal what you need to do is allow school districts flexibility so that they can choose programs that are proven to work. So that they could emulate models such as Cesar Chavez Academy which has a 90 percent graduation rate up from 9 percent when they didn't have bilingual education.

ROBINSON And this is in...

JARAMILLO East Palo Alto. I would put more resources into education. The problems with bilingual education are systemic or indicative of the problems with the whole educational system. We don't have enough money. Our classrooms are too big. We don't have adequately trained teachers and we're got to train those teachers. We've got to put more money into our state's most important resource: the students.

ROBINSON Joseph, Ron, a closing question. Ron's initiative will be on the ballot in June. California is a bellwether state, we know. We also know there are bilingual education programs and problems in states throughout the country. New York, particularly, has problems. What I want from you now is a prediction. Will Ron's initiative pass or will it fail? Ron?

UNZ Well I think it'll pass, and once it passes...

ROBINSON Name the margin. Is this huge 80 percent thing going to persist?

UNZ I think it's possible.


UNZ I think getting about 80 percent or 75 percent overall statewide would be pretty reasonable.

ROBINSON And from there it begins to ripple across the rest of the country.

UNZ I'd even put it more strongly. Half of all the bilingual education programs in America are in California. If the initiative passes, half of all bilingual education in California will disappear immediately. I think the other half will be gone within a year or two.

ROBINSON Joseph, prediction? What happens to his initiative?

JARAMILLO After a long battle to educate the public and to dispel all the misleading statistics and mis-perceptions put out by Mr. Unz, the initiative fails on a very close margin.

ROBINSON Are you going to flip from support to objection among the Latinos particularly? You're going to be able to move your own community, so to speak?

JARAMILLO Our own community needs to be educated and he is playing upon their fears that their children will not be able to learn English under the present system. And then, once it fails, and we have been doing this even before this initiative, we have to roll up our sleeves and we have to make sure that those programs work whether they be about bilingual education, immersion, sheltered immersion, we've got to make sure that there is a choice, there is flexibility, and we can make those programs work.

ROBINSON So you defeat his initiative and roll up your sleeves. Joseph, Ron, thank you very much. Joseph Jaramillo believes that bilingual education is right in principle, although it may need some improvement in practice. Ron Unz is convinced that bilingual education is wrong-headed and a failure. If Ron has his way, and it appears that he will, we will see fewer and fewer students approaching their teacher with the old, lame excuse: El perro se comeo mi tarea. [The dog ate my homework.]

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