US Department of Civil

Rights to

 investigate the Los Angeles

 Unified School District

In 1987 I began work for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as a bilingual second grade teacher Los Angeles. The school was PS 122, in South Central LA.  This was a time of increased immigration to the United States from Mexico, Central and South America, owed largely to the dirty wars the US was waging in this part of the world and the immense poverty due to US foreign policy decisions in tandem with corrupt dictators.  It was also the peak of the Reaganomic policies of hollowing out America, creating huge deficits through tax breaks for the rich and massive spending for the military.

Many of my students were from war-torn El Salvador and had come to Los Angeles as refugees from the horrendous death squads owned and operated by the US government at the time. This was the time of Ollie North under Ronald Reagan and practically all of Central America was under US client-dictatorship.  Other students in my class were from Nicaragua (where I had spent the year in 1985 working for the Ministry of Culture).  Still others were from Mexico and were escaping the devastation of the economy and the ramped up corruption that never seems to let the country of Mexico sleep.  Some of my students were from Guatemala and had managed to escape the brutal military dictatorship that was put into place by the US, first with the murder of Arbenz in 1954 and then later with the help of generals from Honduras.  Certainly all of my students were victims of the public policies of poverty both in their own countries and in the US.

I had been fortunate enough to have been educated in teaching bilingually and I followed the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen (now with School Matters). Those of us who considered ourselves ‘bilingual teachers’ and who were ‘active’ activists within the California Association for Bilingual Educators (CABE) as well as active within our union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) knew that bilingual education worked both to help students maintain their native language and acquire a new language as well as allowing them to keep up with curriculum content so they would not fall behind and end up sixteen years old in a third grade classroom.  We also knew that the ruinous politics of neo-liberal economics was strangling any positive economic policies designed to uplift students and their families.

But decades of massive deficits in education, bilingual bashing, immigrant hatred and ‘English Only’ (supported by Schwarzenegger) sent bilingual education into the dust bin of history.  The swelling immigration that was to continue and still does, fueled the right wing, at this time under the George Deukmejian and later Pete Wilson republican gubernatorial regimes, to demonize and thwart the efforts of bilingual teachers and bilingual education.

Much like today, fear mongering and hatred lined the consciousness of many white city residents who had lived through desegregated “bussing” in the 1960’s and now found themselves living with refugees from the countries that their tax dollars helped devastate. They were and are confused and simply do not understand the causes of massive immigration, mainly from Asia (after the Vietnam and Cambodia wars) and Latin America.  Seedy politicians like Deukmejian and Wilson capitalized on fear and anger to contain education and promote the hatred of teacher unions under a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy.

Bilingual Education and Whole Language Instruction

In a nutshell, real bilingual education was and is about teaching subject matter content in a child’s native language while teaching English as a second language (ESL) alongside.  So, for example I would teach bilingual reading and bilingual math.  This meant with one half my class I would work in Spanish, with the other half in English.  However the goal was to begin in kindergarten with the objective of adding more and more subject content areas in English instruction only so that a child would transition in third grade into an all English curriculum.  Three years of core curriculum would be taught in one’s native language, while subjects like music, art, science and physical education would be taught in English.  ESL was a separate program daily that would then reinforce English language skills so that children would be ready to transition in third grade to an all English instruction classroom. 

During this time we had bilingual aides who could help in the classroom with instruction; and they were usually bilingual.  We also worked at the school site as teachers to assure that our theories and practices were aligned for transitioning students.  When left alone by administrators we as teachers worked together to make on-site decisions that benefited children.

Because I worked in South Central Los Angeles at the time, a section of LA where many newly arriving immigrants arrived, we had the support of the majority of the community and the teacher’s college at California State University at Dominguez Hills.  In fact, many teachers pursued what were then called ‘multi subject bilingual teaching credentials’ and many of us went to Dominguez Hills State University for one and a half years to receive our credentials.  We also had to take specific state tests to measure our own fluency in the both Spanish language and Latin American culture, as well as to assess our ability to teach bilingually.

The misnomer, now and then, is that bilingual education keeps students prisoners in their own language with no transition skills; and that if they are left to sink or swim in English, they would adapt more rapidly to English language and the so-called “American culture.”  This argument coupled with neo-liberal economic policies and the rise of the rightwing and anti-immigration sentiments of the time eventually destroyed bilingual education and with it the chance for thousands and thousands of students to become bilingual, literate and critical thinking citizens.

Not only did sink or swim not work, nor does it, but it more than not left students with no English language skills studying subjects like multiplication or reading with absolutely no comprehension abilities and thus no chance to learn.  They then fell behind, often one or two grades, which eventually caused many of them to drop out of school forever and enter the streets of what were then the killing fields of South Central Los Angeles.  Many are incarcerated in the burgeoning for-profit prisons that we call ‘public housing’ in America.

It is easy for the mendacious and racist English Only movement, which it called itself back then before in your face immigrant bashing was the fad, to say a child at seven years old must go to elementary school and be instructed in 14 subjects daily in a language they do not understand nor comprehend.  It is easy to tell a student at six years old they need to know what the word ‘melon’ is in English when they don’t even know what the word is in their own native language.  It is easy for the English Only movement to tell parents of non-English speakers that they should help their children at home with their homework when the homework is in a language the parents themselves do not understand.  More than that, it is and was at the time I taught, racism and vicious classism.

I have seen many students destroyed by those bent on equating learning to think critically with learning to speak English or pass an all English standardized test.  The assumption was then as it is now among many, that if someone cannot speak or read in English they cannot be educated or think critically.  The evidence always proved them wrong but the slash and burn policies of the district gutted bilingual education claiming it did not work.  With the same fish knife they also decimated the lives of many students.

Thus, when I left South Central in 1989 and moved upstate to work with migrant children, I could already see that bilingual education was becoming disarmed by right wing forces.  For more than 20 years bilingual education was plummeted by rightwing monolingual and sometimes bilingual commentators who said bilingual instruction was failing ‘kids’. 

Now, according to the LA Times of March 19th, the federal government has targeted the Los Angeles Unified School District for its first major investigation under a reinvigorated Office for Civil Rights.   The Times reported on March 19th:

“The probe will focus on services to students learning English, who make up a third of the enrollment in the nation’s second-largest school system” (U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights targets L.A. Unified for investigation

Federal analysts now have to step in and review how English learners are identified and when and how they are judged fluent enough to handle regular course work. Because the LAUSD abandoned bilingual education and whole language instruction in favor of phonics the feds now have to examine whether English learners have qualified, appropriately trained teachers. By abandoning bilingual education for students and whole language instruction it also meant abandoning bilingualism and reading in general and has generally left a population of teachers who are monolingual and cannot teach the students they are asked to serve. 

With no teacher preparation for how to transition students into English curriculum content these teachers are as frustrated as the children they teach.  They often cannot communicate with the parents of their students; they do not provide the same level of math and science instruction for they do not know how to teach the material to second language acquisition learners.  Add to this the fact that many administrators and teachers have low-expectations for children whose native language is not English and we acquire many public policy problems that devastate learning.  Many LA schools provide no extra help for struggling children who are simply thrown into seats in a classroom without teachers who can communicate with them, let alone provide them learning opportunities.  They are then subjected to testing, a form of an ‘educational Guantanamo’.

The result has been decades of low academic achievement among English learners; about 3 in 100 are proficient in math and English at the high school level, according to federal officials (ibid).

Closing the “Achievement Gap”

The Office for Civil Rights, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is charged with enforcing laws that protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin and disability status.

L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he welcomed the federal probe, stating that an outside evaluation would help the district identify and expand successful programs.  But this is smoke and mirrors from a Superintendent that has sold his soul to the charter charlatans and the political brass that let him keep his post if he went along with school privatization efforts and school closures.  The real issue is that Cortines himself is not qualified to run a district of this magnitude.  Also, the district itself is too big; it must be decentralized and run by those who labor in the schools – teachers and staff.

Supt. Cortines told the LA Times that the school district probably ranks “above average” compared to other school systems in programs for English learners. But that’s not nearly good enough, he added (ibid).  “Probably”?  Sorry, but this is not good enough data to make public policy decisions.  If there is no factual data about the students and teachers who attend and teach in the third largest school district in the country, then curriculum and teaching decisions are being made based on unbridled assumptions or worse yet, hidden agendas.  According to Cortines:

“I don’t think we have done well in making sure our young people continue to develop both written and oral language” (ibid).

No, certainly not and it has to do with the abandonment of bilingual education and whole language instruction in favor of “hooked on phonics” instruction; a nasty and ruinous consequence many of us feared two decades ago as bilingual programs were being dismantled.  We now have many students who are literate in neither their native language nor English.  Sink or swim has left students in a rapidly moving current with no raft.  The majority sink, few swim.  The current policy of phonics instruction and ‘sink or swim’ is deplorable and at least one generation of youth has been damaged if not abandoned by the English Only movement and its neo-liberal and racist counterparts.

Now, with fewer services and programs due to massive budget cuts and a district too big to wield, students suffer and the district gets a visit from the Feds.  Withholding federal funds from the district is one enforcement option, but with the district trying to bridge a $640 million budget gap it is unlikely.

The Times noted that:

“The ultimate goal of federal officials is to exert pressure on L.A. Unified and other school districts to close the achievement gap that separates white, Asian and higher-income students from low-income, black and Latino students. The federal government has the authority to examine practices that harm groups of students, even in the absence of intentional discrimination” (ibid).

Duncan to the rescue?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was quick to announce his beefed–up enforcement efforts Monday, the 15th of March at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site where law enforcement officers beat and drove back 600 civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965.  At the staged event, Duncan stated that 38 school districts would be subject to “compliance review”, but he refused to name the districts.  We now know one of them.

Under the Obama administration, Duncan has dangled the promise of vitally needed federal dollars to extort reforms from districts, such as linking teacher evaluations to student achievement (inauthentic testing) and increasing the number of charter schools, which are independently managed, mostly non-union and free from some restrictions that govern traditional schools.  

Any mention of returning to bilingual education by the dubious thinker and policy wonk, Duncan?  No, of course not.  Just flavorless rhetoric and obsequious stage talk about how teachers should be evaluated when teaching children they cannot communicate with; you’ll hear nothing about helping prepare teachers to understand the concepts of bilingual education or whole language instruction which worked so well at 122nd Street Elementary School and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

All Arne Duncan cares about is the numerologist game of testing and setting up testing regimes.  At 122nd Street Elementary school my students might not have done as well as they could under the ‘standardized tests’ mandated by the state at the time, but what they did do well was learn to live with other cultures, develop empathy and learn to love education in conjunction with other students.  This is far more important than any standardized test.  The real curriculum is life and as teachers and students, we both understood this.

The mantra of most of the educational bureaucrats and administrators will remain the same until challenged: underachievement is due to personal failure or ‘non-transitioning’ and sink or swim will remain policy because everyone must speak English to learn.  The charter schools have no plans for English learners other than benching them or drilling them with the horror of phonics, the enemy of all language acquisition; especially a language like English that is not phonetic.

We don’t need a federal inquiry to know that the LAUSD under Superintendent of Schools Cortines and Mayor Villaraigosa is failing.  They are proponents of its failure, preferring Green Dot and other EMO’s (educational maintenance organizations) to reshuffle the deck of school reform.  This time though, the card game is supposed to be private and the card deck fixed.  Instead of adopting time proven solutions like whole language and bilingual instruction, these bureaucrats blame teachers, close schools and then contract them out or merely give them away to charter hooligans intent on making a buck.

The problem of what plagues LAUSD and its students and teachers is the abandonment of bilingual education and whole language instruction and the underlying assumption that those who do not understand English cannot think critically.  This deadly assumption that has doomed kids to failure and left them bereft of education and both a primary and secondary language is now coming home to roost, along with the pernicious neo-liberal policies like ‘Free Trade” or NAFTA that have shuffled out our productive capacity and left no manufacturing base in cities like LA.  Poverty and lack of education, thus persist.

The federal government will find that a shift in economic policy, whole language instruction and bilingual instruction for both teachers and students is a necessity if students are to close what the bureaucrats call the “achievement gap” and what humanitarian educators call ‘critical thinking or critical literacy.  Bring back the legitimate theories and practices of both whole language instruction and bilingual education and our children can excel.  Allow teachers to have adequate bilingual preparation and to make decisions at school sites as to how to prepare students for a rapidly changing global world.  Unleash the creativity of parents, teachers and students in favor of the bureaucratic mismanagement of blind overpaid administrators with bloated salaries and no imagination.

The problem of course is that those who wield power do so not for the children they serve, but for the politicians, the corporations and the privatizers who look at our students as cattle needing to be fed and the teachers who try to teach them as cattle feeders.

It is time to shift the military expenditures that make us all less safe to domestic policies like educating children and providing health care and after school and pre-school activities.  It is time to end the trillions spent on war and shift our focus to civilian life and eduction, rapidly vanishing under the tutelage of those who have never taught students nor care to try.

Just a note:  You can see and hear Stephen Krashen on April 30th from 5:45 - 6:45 PM at Fresno State University.  Stephen will be will be speaking about the “Role of the Professional Teacher.”  Educators and Parents Agaisnt Test Abuse is hosting a two day event for the community and you can get a hold Glenn DeVoodgd, Ph. D and professor and chair of the Department of Literacy and Early Education at (559) 278 0279 or contact Jsoeph Lucido at (559) 978-5082 or Horace Lucido at (559) 277-1312.  This event is a two-day event so do mark your calendars.