‘The Today Show’ Hosts Discussion on Bilingual Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 18, 2009 1 min read
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“The Today Show” broadcasts an interview with Ron Unz, who financed the effort to curtail bilingual education in California back in 1998, for a segment that attempts to answer the question, “Should education in the U.S. be bilingual?” The show stresses how the Hispanic student population has grown dramatically in this country in places that didn’t traditionally receive a lot of immigrants, such as North Carolina.

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As usual, Unz contends that English-language learners have fared better in California since voters approved a ballot initiative to reduce bilingual education back in 1998. As proof, he notes that state test scores for such students have gone up. (He’s had the same message for a decade.) “The Today Show” segment doesn’t say this, but while test scores for ELLs have gone up in California, the achievement gap between ELLs and native speakers of English in the state has grown wider over the last six years.

Patricia Gandara, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, expresses a view opposite to that of Unz by saying in an interview aired on the segment that bilingual education is “a better avenue” for most Spanish-speaking students.

Interestingly, former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is one of two guests on the show to talk about bilingual education. The other guest is Raul Gonzalez, the senior legislative director for the National Council of La Raza.

Both say that educators have moved away from the acrimony of the bilingual education vs. English-only education debate of the past to look at practical concerns of teaching ELLs. Gonzalez calls the debate over which method to use with ELLs a “20th century debate.”

Spellings says, “It’s not my place or Raul’s place to say what the prescription is.” Which method to employ is a decision that should be made by educators “on the ground,” she says.

Personally, I’m not convinced that the debate was left behind in the 20th century. I suspect it could rear its head again during discussions about how the federal government can best support the education of ELLs during reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.