Life in a Politicized
What Role for Educational Researchers?
by James Crawford
Linguistic Minority Research
Conference on the Schooling
of English Language Learners in the Post 227 Era
May 14, 1999
Today we'll be looking at the politics of Proposition
227 and what they portend for the future of bilingual education in this
country. No doubt some of you have heard me address these subjects before.
But today, I'm going to approach them a bit differently.
Normally, when I speak to groups of educators, I
am acutely conscious of preaching to the converted. I feel like an outside
evangelist called in to hold a revival meeting, comfort the afflicted, denounce
the Satanic forces, and make people feel vindicated for staying on the righteous
Growing up in East Tennessee, I was immersed in this
tradition from an early age. Tent meetings and traveling evangelists were
part of the culture. Sometimes these even included the handling of poisonous
snakes, a thrilling type of service that you never seemed to get in the established
churches. It's a complex ritual, to which I cannot do full justice here.
Suffice to say that handling a copperhead or a rattlesnake functions as a
test of faith against powerful symbols of evil. Naturally the dangers go
well beyond the symbolic; each year a few people die and more are poisoned.
Yet flirting with evil and surviving can be extremely cathartic, and thus
remains a popular form of religious experience.
Bag of Snakes
This pretty much sums up my normal approach when speaking
on Proposition 227. I bring along a bag full of snakes – Ron Unz, English-only
advocates, enemies of the public schools – and we kick them around for a
while. It's a ritual that makes everybody feel a lot better. Whether it has
any effect on public policy is another matter. Certainly not, if these ideas
remain within our own narrow circles.
So today I'm going to try a new tack. I did bring
along the snakes and I plan to release them shortly. But I intend to use them
for a different purpose – a more worldly purpose, I hope – to frighten the
faithful into confronting some difficult issues, to grapple with questions
such as the following:
Now, for purposes of argument, I will assume that
virtually everyone attending this conference believes researchers in bilingualism
ought to be playing some part in the public policy debate.
Although I suspect there's a spectrum of opinion on what forms that participation
- Is there an antidote for the venomous politics surrounding
bilingual education today?
- Can future Unz initiatives and similar restrictive
legislation be defeated?
- Is it possible to influence voters and policymakers
to rethink their aversion to native-language instruction?
- If so, what role should educational researchers be
playing in all of this?
In addition, I believe most people here would probably
agree that educational researchers as a group played a limited and rather
ineffectual role in the losing campaign against Proposition 227. This is
not to ignore the contributions of various individuals, several of whom are
in the room today, who took an active part in the public discourse. Quite
a number of people spoke out – as experts – in debates with Ron Unz, media
interviews, talk shows, and other forums.
Yet, I'm sorry to say, the voters hardly seemed to
notice. Certainly, it's hard to believe that many of them cast their ballots,
Yes or No, on the basis of scientific evidence. More likely, they cast them
on the basis of ethnic loyalties, attitudes toward the schools, and gut
feelings about language acquisition. Why did research have such a limited
impact on the outcome? No doubt there were several factors at work. I'll
focus on three of them:
First, the individual advocates who came forward to
defend bilingual education – whether researchers or nonacademics like myself
– did so with many voices, emphasizing diverse evidence and arguments, and
lacking any central coordination from our own campaign. This made for a
complex message, delivered by numerous messengers, to different media, in
different contexts, without any planning whatsoever. No wonder its impact
By contrast, Ron Unz was repeating the same points
at every campaign stop, simplistic but seemingly logical ideas that reinforced
myths the voters already harbored about second-language acquisition. Thus
his key arguments appeared consistently in the news media. This is what
politicians call "staying on message." As a result, Unz managed to make this
a referendum between bilingual education on the one hand and "English for
the Children" on the other. No contest.
By and large, experts who could have effectively
debunked this misconception never managed to marshal the data to show what
a false choice this was. Our contributions were sporadic and uncoordinated,
in part because of the strategy of the No on 227 campaign. It kept telling
us, "Don't Defend Bilingual Education." By avoiding any discussion of the
issue, our leadership hoped to refocus voters' attention on the Unz initiative
itself, with all its extreme features. This gamble did not pay off. Changing
the subject ultimately proved futile in changing the minds of voters.
Ad Hominem Attacks
A second factor also deserves mention. Yes on 227,
with considerable help from journalists, worked to discredit the entire field
of research in second-language acquisition, in particular to neutralize
scientific voices on the effectiveness question. Ron Unz did this first with
ad hominem attacks, charging that academic supporters of bilingual education
were part of the "loony Left," isolated from reality, and corrupted by their
government funding and ties to ethnic lobbies. His appeal to the cynicism
of journalists worked brilliantly.
Unz also achieved his goal with attacks on the research
itself. Quite cleverly, he dismissed all studies on bilingual education
– whether pro or con – as biased, slipshod, and unreliable. "Utter garbage,"
was the term he often used. He refused to cite any of it, even studies by
his ally Christine Rossell, of Boston University, who claims to have helped
in drafting Proposition 227.
That way, Unz found it easier to argue that Californians
should reject all research and fall back on their common sense. For
It was all so obvious. Who needed academic experts to confuse
the issue? This, too, proved an irresistible appeal to many journalists,
and not just to the overt anti-intellectuals.
- "Everyone knows" that young children are the best
- "Everyone knows" they can pick up English within
a few months – if they're not held back by native language instruction.
- And "everyone knows" immigrant students are languishing
in non-English-language classrooms, falling behind their peers, and dropping
out of school.
Lack of Consensus
This brings us to the third and most sensitive point
I want to mention about researchers' role – or lack thereof – in the Proposition
227 debate. I believe there is no clear consensus within the field itself
about the state of the research. In particular: how to summarize scientific
findings, what policy conclusions to draw, and even whether it is worthwhile
to continue comparing alternative program models.
I would argue that this is so despite attempts to
develop such a consensus, notably the 1997 National Research Council report
for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda. As
you know, this is a huge document, with numerous authors, covering lots of
diverse material, and presenting findings that are complex and sometimes contradictory.
It's no secret that certain kinds of research provide
stronger support for use of the native language than others. For example,
there's a great deal of evidence from small, controlled studies showing
the transferability of content knowledge and literacy skills from one language
to another – strongly suggesting that time spent learning in the native
language is learning time well spent. On the other hand, owing to the inherent
difficulties of program evaluation studies, there's considerably less high-quality
data on the long-term academic effects of developing students' native language
to greater or lesser degrees. Which is not to say there is none at all,
but all real-world studies have limitations and all are open to criticism.
Portraying this complex picture inevitably makes
the NRC report susceptible to varying interpretations. Many colleagues inside
the field see it as an important step forward in summarizing and depoliticizing
the scientific evidence on how to educate English learners. And yet, outside
the field, in the political debates raging over this issue, the NRC report
is more often cited by critics of bilingual education than by its supporters.
This should tell us something about the communication problem we face.
During the Proposition 227 campaign, I collected
numerous references to the NRC report in the popular media. Invariably, it
was cited in a one-sided way to challenge the reliability of any and all research
in this field – to characterize it as politicized, inconclusive, and thus
worthless as a basis for policy decisions.
Now reasonable people can disagree on whether this
represents an outrageous distortion of the text. Or whether the NRC report
was drafted in such a way that it invited such interpretations. Still, I think
there's no question that, in the public policy debate, its net effect has
been to undercut support for bilingual education. It has given skeptical politicians
and journalists an excuse to dismiss bilingual education as an "unproven
theory," rather than consider the data that do exist.
For the most part, the dismissal of research evidence
has gone effectively unchallenged by researchers themselves. Perhaps that's
because few academics these days are accustomed to participating in the
public forum, as public intellectuals. Of course, this doesn't prevent
what they say in academic forums from being appropriated by advocates and
even used to oppose what the researchers in fact believe.
This is not a new problem. I have noticed it ever
since I started writing about this field in the mid-1980s. Candid statements
about the state of the research have been seized upon by critics as evidence
that "even the supporters of bilingual education admit that it doesn't work."
Disagreements tend to get increasingly polarized and politicized as the stakes
get progressively higher. Not a gentle climate in which to do research – or
to teach kids, for that matter. A climate that shows no signs of changing
of its own accord.
Conflicted over Roles
Which brings us back to our original question: How
should researchers respond to this situation? Should they retreat from the
public arena altogether, leaving it to the political advocates? Or should
they find more effective ways to work in that arena, as scholar-activists?
I think the field is divided – or perhaps a better word would be conflicted
– over these questions. Because, for many researchers, neither alternative
seems very attractive.
On the one hand, they hate to see policies for English
learners like Proposition 227 decided on the basis of prejudice and ignorance.
On the other hand, they worry that playing too big a part in the political
circus could undermine their own credibility and that of their work.
So, for many, it is tempting to withdraw from the
debate over on language of instruction, and to condemn this single-minded
focus. This is, after all, only one program variable for English learners,
and not always the most important. It is tempting to call for a cease-fire
in the political debate and urge everyone to get back to discussing other
pressing pedagogical issues.
At the same time, it is hard to see how this would
solve anything in practice, especially when one side is winning the war of
public opinion, scoring victories like Proposition 227. For the critics of
bilingual education, where is the incentive to depoliticize? One might as
well preach disarmament to a band of invading Cossacks. Not a very effective
tactic for the peasants.
In grappling with this dilemma, it is important to
speak concretely. You can only get so far discussing concepts like politicization
and activism and advocacy in the abstract. Not only do they
have different connotations for different people, but these terms can also
obscure important distinctions. For example, when one condemns the "politicization"
of the language-of-instruction debate, it implies a kind of moral equivalence
– a symmetry in which both sides are at fault, grinding the same kinds of
ideological axes and committing the same types of excesses. I believe this
is a false symmetry in almost every respect.
Changing of the Guard
Let's begin by taking a closer look at the character
of today's anti-bilingual movement. The devil in all its details. In case
you hadn't noticed, it is no longer dominated by the flag-waving, immigrant-baiting,
single-issue zealots at U.S. English and English First.
Today the traditional English-only campaign seems
increasingly irrelevant. I believe it peaked about three years ago, when Newt
Gingrich and Bob Dole embraced the cause and the U.S. House of Representatives
passed H.R. 123, the so-called "English Language
Empowerment Act of 1996." The idea being to "empower" non-English speakers
in the same way that House Republicans "empowered" immigrants and welfare
recipients – by cutting off services and forcing people to fend for themselves.
Had H.R. 123 become law, it would have effectively
prohibited the U.S. government and its employees from publishing any written
materials in a language other than English. A rather disturbing precedent,
although the practical impact would have been limited, since 99.94 percent
of what the U.S. government now publishes is printed in English. The documents
at risk were mainly translations of IRS forms, social security information,
voting materials in a few jurisdictions, and tourist brochures at national
Fortunately, this bill never came to a vote in the
Senate, where another group of Republicans were dubious about the idea. They
worried about alienating Latinos, the fastest-growing sector of the electorate.
And to no real purpose, other than making a symbolic statement is deeply
insulting to many ethnic minorities. I believe a growing number of Americans
are coming to view English-only legislation in this light. People who once
saw these measures as innocent now recognize how pointless and divisive they
are. Meanwhile, English-only advocates are running out of states where it
can score easy victories.
Long ago they ran out of new ideas. They continue
to enjoy a following, to raise money through the mail, and to run patronizing
ads about English unlocking the American Dream. Nevertheless, they seem to
be approaching a political dead-end.
Their attacks on bilingual education over the years
have rarely been effective because, while they paid lip service to helping
children learn English, they also tended to portray language minorities in
a sinister light: as a Big Problem for the country. U.S. English has never
been able to decide whether it truly wants to help assimilate immigrants or
to slam the Golden Door in their faces.
So, if bilingual education had to have an opposition,
these old-time English-only leaders were ideal. They were crude, extreme,
xenophobic, unsophisticated, and amateurish. It's too bad that Ron Unz has
supplanted these people. Because he is none of those things. Which makes him
a far more formidable opponent.
In effect, Proposition 227 represented a changing
of the guard in the anti-bilingual leadership. While Unz led the most consequential
English-only campaign ever, U.S. English and English First stayed in Washington
to lobby against the Puerto Rico plebiscite bill, fretting about the possibility
of a Spanish-speaking state sometime in the future. An obsession that few
other Americans seem to share.
Ron Unz, by contrast, knows all too well what worries
American voters. Not only immigration and language diversity, but also the
performance of public schools in an era of social and demographic change.
He recognized the advantages of stressing the latter, not the former, as
themes of the Proposition 227 campaign.
New Platform for Attacks
In effect, Unz repositioned the attack on bilingual
education – no longer launching it from a stance of nativism and intolerance,
but from the more respectable platform of school reform. As a neoconservative,
he sought to capitalize on the voters' fears and frustrations about public
education. The 227 campaign gave him an opportunity to demonize favorite
villains of the Right: supporters of Big Government, teachers' unions, ivory
tower academics, civil rights advocates, and of course, the dreaded "education
Bilingual education turned out to be an ideal target
for these purposes. And, of course, a vulnerable one as well. That was something
the traditional English-only activists had failed to grasp because they
were so wrapped up in symbolic politics.
Unz opposed bilingual education not as an internal
security threat or an undeserved benefit to immigrants, but rather as a "failed
social program" of the 1960s. An educational "fad" promoted by liberal elites.
Part of a litany of "wrong-headed pedagogical experiments," including "whole
language, invented spelling, 'fuzzy math,' constructivist science, and endless
That quote, by the way, demonstrates the success
of Unz's efforts to be treated as a sincere reformer, a responsible conservative.
It comes from an article he published two weeks ago, not in the National
Review or the Wall Street Journal, but in the Nation
magazine, one of the last vestiges of Left-wing journalism in this country.
His reception by California media during the 227
campaign was equally respectful. Basically, after it was established that
Unz had no white sheets in his closet, journalists lost interest in his larger
political agenda – which remained effectively hidden in plain sight. Reporters
tended to take most of what he said at face value. In fact, they did such
a thorough job of recycling his message that he didn't even need to run
TV advertising in the late stages of the campaign.
None of this happened by accident. It was part of
Unz's conscious strategy. As you'll recall, he carefully avoided being labeled
an immigrant basher. Instead he posed as an immigrant advocate against
unresponsive schools. Not only did he recruit Jaime Escalante, Gloria Matta
Tuchman, and other Latinos as campaign figureheads. He also spurned the
support of Pete Wilson, citing the governor's record of divisiveness. And
he provoked California's nativist fringe groups into opposing 227.
On a pragmatic basis, if nothing else, Ron Unz recognizes
that pandering to nativism – as many of his Right-wing comrades have done
– is self-defeating in the long term. Because after passions cool, members
of the majority usually forget about their own excesses, but the victims
have long memories. And if they vote, watch out. A lesson that California
Republicans recently learned.
Unz's strategy was less risky and also more effective.
By positioning himself as a moderate, he still got plenty of anti-immigrant
votes for 227, while simultaneously broadening his appeal. By focusing
on pedagogical issues alone – leaving out the racially charged attacks on
bilingualism – he played to his natural advantage. There is widespread public
ignorance about second-language acquisition and about programs for English
Conversely, this is the major disadvantage
for the advocates of bilingual education. Virtually nobody outside the field
understands it. Every layperson I encounter – including plenty who are progressive
and fair-minded – see it as an alternative to English instruction.
Simple as that.
Now, as we all know, there are some hopelessly biased
people out there who don't want a dime of their tax money going to immigrants.
Who don't care whether language-minority kids succeed academically, as long
as the gardeners and sales clerks of tomorrow can communicate in basic English.
Such people are unlikely to change their minds about bilingual education.
I am convinced, however, that this is a relatively
small minority. Most native-born, English-speaking Americans – if they understood
that developing the native language is good for English and good for long-term
academic achievement – would support bilingual education. The problem is,
almost none of them have heard the case. They have only heard the disinformation,
coming from people who oppose these programs for extraneous (i.e., political)
Ron Unz and his cohorts, including a handful of academic
critics, have worked to become effective advocates in the policy debate.
Whereas researchers, advocates, and practitioners in bilingual education
are rarely effective. Not for lack of ability or arguments or data. But
because, over the years, with some exceptions during the 227 campaign, they
have rarely tried to shape public attitudes about programs for English learners.
Perhaps that's why Unz is now exporting his anti-bilingual campaign to Arizona
and is testing the waters in Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and other
states. Bullies prefer targets that don't fight back.
I have been outspoken in criticizing the No on 227
campaign for refusing to defend bilingual education. But, in fairness, I must
say this is a problem of longstanding. For example, there are numerous centers
dedicated to conducting research on educational programs for English learners
and to disseminating the results to practitioners. Most of them do excellent
work. Yet they are all focused inward, on serving the field itself. None
is oriented toward educating the public about these matters.
It's not merely researchers who have neglected this
task. Despite fifteen years of relentless attacks on bilingual education,
from U.S. English to Bill Bennett to Newt Gingrich to Ron Unz, there has been
little concerted attempt – by anyone – to repair the program's public image.
Over the years, this has had a serious cumulative effect. It is a painful
lesson we learned, or should have learned, last year in California.
So I have to laugh when I hear journalists refer
to the "powerful bilingual education lobby," with its highly "political" orientation.
The truth is: you'd be hard-pressed to find a less political group
of professionals than educators, bilingual or otherwise. Of course, most
bilingual educators do believe that proficiency in two or more languages
is beneficial. That there is no pedagogical reason for kids to give up their
first language in order to learn English. And that, at parents' option, children
should have an opportunity to maintain the heritage language.
Only in America would this be labeled a "political"
position. In most other countries, it would be considered an educational
goal, and a reasonable one at that. Yet people here tend to assume that,
if minority kids are involved, advocating bilingualism must be ethnically
motivated. That bilingual education is all about "the politics of language."
When I first started writing about this field, I
tried to locate the ethnic militants who were allegedly promoting native-language
instruction as a way to provide jobs for Hispanics, or keep Spanish-speaking
ghettos intact, or even hatch separatist plots to liberate Aztlán,
or whatever. But I never could find them. If such activists ever existed,
they have long since passed from the scene. The Chicano militants I have
researched from the late 60s and early 70s – like La Raza Unida Party, which
instituted bilingual education in Crystal City, Texas – were strongly oriented
toward teaching English.
All this is consistent with the only political motivation
I have personally encountered for these programs. Quite simply, it is a
belief in equal educational opportunity, a determination to remedy the neglect
that English learners long suffered by providing them programs that researchers
have found to be promising. Frankly, I fail to see how that "politicizes"
the debate over language of instruction. To the contrary, I think it reflects
a desire to resist external – non-pedagogical – influences on
the curriculum, such as those exerted by English-only advocates.
The True Politicizers
Now, if you want to talk about "politicization" of
research, let's consider what certain critics of bilingual education are up
to. It provides an instructive contrast.
The small handful of academics on that side of the
fence seem to have no hesitation about aligning themselves with political
advocacy groups. Christine Rossell serves along with Ron Unz on the board
of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO),
an outfit headed by Linda Chavez and funded by Unz, the John D. Olin Foundation,
and other conservative benefactors. All of CEO's activities are dedicated
to opposing three policies: bilingual education, multiculturalism, and affirmative
action. That's all it does. Currently, for example, it is suing the Albuquerque
Public Schools seeking to have bilingual education declared unconstitutional
under New Mexico law.
Rossell's frequent coauthor, Keith Baker, formerly
of the U.S. Department of Education was recruited by U.S. English to found
the so-called READ Institute.
READ in turn has funded studies critical of bilingual education and supportive
of "structured immersion." After a short time, Baker was replaced by Rosalie
Porter as director of READ. Nevertheless, the organization continued to
receive generous assistance help from the financial supporters behind U.S.
English, the same forces that finance immigration-restriction activities.
Porter recently stepped down as director and turned the operation over to
Jorge Amselle, an employee of CEO, where READ will now be housed.
Porter continues to edit the journal READ Perspectives,
which is aimed less at academic audiences than at journalists and policymakers.
Not long ago, she published an analysis of the National Research Council
report by Charles Glenn – essentially arguing that it supports READ's position:
that after 30 years of studying bilingual programs, researchers still have
no evidence of their effectiveness.
This political spin on the NRC's conclusions has
been widely disseminated, thanks in part to John Silber, former chair of the
Massachusetts State Board of Education, who sent it to every principal, superintendent,
and local board member in his state. Among news reporters and producers,
the READ monograph has gotten around far more than the original report.
In addition, Porter has been quite successful in
voicing her criticisms in the popular media, including an Atlantic Monthly
article just before the vote on Proposition 227. Baker and Rossell have also
been highlighted in numerous journalistic hatchet-jobs on bilingual education.
And, of course, all three give frequent expert testimony in civil litigation
and legislative hearings, not to mention sessions of the California State
Board of Education.
Now, let me make myself clear. I see nothing unethical
in these activities – accepting funding from politically sympathetic sources,
disseminating research with which one agrees, writing popular articles,
seeking to influence media coverage – in other words, fighting hard for one's
point of view in the public square.
I would welcome more of this kind of activism among
supporters of bilingual education, instead of the prevailing reticence to
participate in political and policy debates. What I do challenge – and what
I wish researchers in this field would spend more time challenging – is the
substance of the critics' academic work. Much of it is little more than agit-prop
masquerading as social science.
Among numerous possible examples, I'll cite what I
regard as the most significant of these studies: the Rossell-Baker 1996 review
of the literature. It was prominently featured in the journal Research
in the Teaching of English (30:7-74) and also appeared in a book
(Bilingual Education in Massachusetts: The Emperor Has No Clothes)
that was widely disseminated to journalists by the Pioneer Foundation of
Boston, another neoconservative "think tank" devoted to "school reform."
This paper seems to have exerted a significant influence on policymakers
– largely, I think, because of its scientific trappings and its definitive-sounding
conclusions, such as "TBE [transitional bilingual education] was better than
submersion only 22% of the time."
Rossell and Baker claim to have weeded through a
thicket of shoddy research in bilingual education and picked out only the
most rigorous studies to summarize. After counting up the results in those
that allegedly compare the effectiveness of transitional bilingual education
versus that of structured immersion, they report that there was no contest.
In comparisons of reading achievement, programs using the native language
were judged inferior in ten studies and no better in two others. By all
appearances, the Rossell-Baker report was a clear vindication of those who
advocate English-only immersion programs for language-minority students in
the United States.
And yet, if you track down the studies under review,
as Jim Cummins and Steve
Krashen have done, the picture becomes rather murky. Seven of the ten
studies were actually comparisons of different forms of French immersion
for English-speaking students in Canada. These programs turn out to be either
bilingual or trilingual, in both methods and goals. Moreover, they operate
in an entirely different social context from our own – one in which children
were mostly middle-class and white, rather than mostly poor and minority,
and in which students' home language enjoyed a higher status than the target
language. Yet Rossell and Baker, relying on a theoretical approach they declined
to elaborate, relabeled these Canadian programs as "TBE" or "structured immersion."
None of this was disclosed to their readers, who likely assumed that actual
program alternatives for LEP students in the United States were being compared.
Among the remaining three studies that purportedly
showed the superiority of structured immersion, Rossell and Baker include
a 1946 report on uncompleted research involving English and Afrikaans speakers
in South Africa before World War II. Not an easy study to track down, but
Krashen recently did. He found that (1)
the data were not subjected to any statistical tests and (2) there were no
controls for pre-existing differences between students. And there were good
reasons to believe the subjects differed in significant ways that could have
affected the results. For example, some Afrikaans-speaking students attended
bilingual schools in "remote rural areas," while others attended urban schools,
where English-only instruction was more common.
The final two studies did involve Spanish-speaking
kids in the U.S., but details were limited about exactly what was going on
in the models being compared. In one of the so-called immersion programs,
there was a substantial amount of Spanish-language instruction; in the other,
the sample size was extremely small.
As Jay Greene puts it, rather politely, in his meta-analysis of the Rossell-Baker study, the reviewers'
procedures leave a "potential for bias." Steve Krashen concludes, a bit more
bluntly, that Rossell and Baker repeatedly violate their own standards of
methodological acceptability. And I would add: they do this with impunity.
Neither professionally nor politically have they paid a price for their methods.
Quite the contrary. They continue to receive the red carpet from mainsttream
publications like the Phi Delta Kappan.
Now, some people might say: "This just goes to show
what happens when research debates become politicized: both sides bend the
rules for tendentious purposes." I beg to differ. Not only does this let the
true politicizers off the hook, but it also sends the wrong message to researchers
who believe in bilingual education – who have no doubts about its benefits
– about what they should be doing. What's more, it is simply inaccurate.
As evidence for this last assessment, let me bring
up another sensitive subject. I refer to the ongoing Thomas-Collier
study, whose reported findings confirm – perhaps better than any evidence
to date – what our "side" in this debate has long maintained. The more developed
the native language skills of English learners, the better they are likely
to fare academically over the long term. For advocates of bilingual education,
it would be hard to imagine better news.
Unfortunately, for reasons that remain unclear, Thomas
and Collier have thus far declined to release sufficient data to support
these findings. That is not just my opinion. It is the opinion of many –
I would say most – applied linguists who would like to believe them. A frustrating
situation for the field, to judge by the amount of private grumbling. Few
of us have spoken out publicly, however, perhaps for fear of alienating old
friends or giving aid and comfort to current opponents. As a consequence,
this smoldering issue – this highly significant issue – has yet to be discussed
in public. Someone needs to broach it. Always the loose cannon, today I am
ready to play that role.
A year ago at this time, Thomas and Collier's results
– if valid, and I have no grounds to doubt that they are – seemed the perfect
answer to Proposition 227. Two respected researchers claimed to have reviewed
"more than 700,000 student records." After examining outcomes from the whole
spectrum of programs for English learners, they reported a clear edge for
developmental bilingual education, especially when compared to the short-term
English-only approach mandated by the initiative. Needless to say, it was
tempting to use this ammunition against Ron Unz, who had no evidence whatsoever
to support his radical experiment. If anything could correct media misconceptions,
many of us felt, this was it.
Yet no matter how desperate we felt during the 227
campaign, as far as I know Thomas and Collier went uncited by advocates on
the No side. Researchers in the field viewed this as a question of professional
ethics. And rightly so. Scientists do not endorse studies as definitive,
or accept findings on faith, simply because they agree with the conclusions.
They first need to examine the details. In this case, many relevant details
remain unavailable. So, when asked about the Thomas-Collier study, bilingual
education researchers usually respond that, while the early reports are
intriguing, this remains unpublished research.
Considering these circumstances, why should the critics
of bilingual education be held to a lower standard? That's what we are doing
when we avoid criticizing them aggressively for fear of being labeled "too
I am glad to see the rebuttals to Rossell and Baker
by Cummins and Krashen. I would also note that Kenji Hakuta
and Diane August have written a strong response to READ, setting the
record straight about the NRC panel's report. Yet none of the recent critiques
seems to have penetrated the popular media – including Jay Greene's important meta-analysis, which appeared
during the 227 campaign but made virtually no news except in the Spanish-language
Even the circulation of these articles in academic
channels has been limited. I have been happy to post them on my web site.
But I don't think this is the most effective solution, considering that my
number of daily hits totals somewhere in the high two figures. And judging
from my email, a sizable percentage of these represent undergraduates doing
Politics Are Inescapable
What, then, should researchers be doing in this politicized
environment? Well, since you asked ... I am not suggesting that anyone cook
their data, lower scientific standards, produce tendentious reviews of research,
or commit other breaches of professional ethics.
What I do advocate is simple: engage the critics
of bilingual education in every venue. In academic contexts, certainly. But
equally important, in the forums they now dominate – the popular media and
the policymaking bodies – because what happens there matters a great deal
to language-minority students. At present, those who are the best qualified
to give advice on educating these kids – people like you – have virtually
no influence in such forums.
Changing this situation will mean learning how to
frame issues in a context the public can understand. This is no simple matter
when you're facing off against demagogues. In short, it requires one to
participate in politics. Which, as the civil rights movement demonstrated,
need not be a reprehensible act. Nor one that is alien to professional commitments.
To the contrary, it is vital to our work. It is vital to the children we
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