Federal Reporter's Notebook

Bilingual Educators Ratchet Up Criticism of Federal NCLB Law

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 01, 2005 4 min read
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Speaker after speaker at the National Association for Bilingual Education’s annual conference last month urged bilingual teachers to oppose the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements for English-language learners.

That tone was reinforced by the keynote address delivered to the 7,000 educators meeting here by Alfie Kohn, a prominent education author who is a critic of standardized testing, the accountability movement, and the federal education law.

Mr. Kohn listed groups of students who, in his view, are put at a disadvantage by the requirements of the law, including students of color, English-language learners, and “students who aren’t affluent.” Then he said: “We are facing nothing short of an educational ethnic cleansing in America.”

Mr. Kohn called on teachers not to go along with what he characterized as the law’s fixation on standardized testing. For example, he told educators not to cite standardized-test scores to try to show the effectiveness of bilingual education because such assessments test what is least important in learning. “If you cite test scores, you have become an accomplice,” he said.


James Crawford, a longtime writer about language policy who became the executive director of the Washington-based NABE in July, told attendees that the education law “is on a collision course with reality” and “will have to be overturned.” Mr. Crawford, who was a reporter for Education Week in the 1980s, said the law relies on “a single measure of achievement” for English-language learners—standardized tests.

Lily Wong Fillmore, a researcher on language and literacy who recently retired from the University of California, Berkeley, observed that the No Child Left Behind Act is putting enormous pressure on schools to raise children’s test scores in English. Such pressure has caused some schools to question if they can continue supporting bilingual education, she said.

“The message to bilingual teachers everywhere is: They are going to be judged by how fast they can get their children out of bilingual education,” she said.

Criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act was not a featured component of NABE’s conference last year in Albuquerque, N.M.

Pauline Dow, the director of academic-language services for the 4,950-student Canutillo Independent School District in Texas and a board member of NABE, said in an interview that the organization is changing course.

“The No Child Left Behind Act caught everybody by surprise,” she said. “We made a mistake in supporting it. We didn’t make the time to understand the repercussions of the law.”

Kathleen Leos, the associate deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition, didn’t attend this year’s NABE conference, but said she learned from her department colleagues about speakers’ criticisms of the act. She said NABE is spreading misinformation about the law.

The law permits states to use more than one measure of student achievement if they wish, she said. And the act doesn’t disfavor bilingual education, she insisted.

In a breakout session at the conference, a teacher and the principal from Nopal Elementary School in the 16,000-student Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., told others how they saved their school’s bilingual education program despite a state ballot measure in 2000 that aimed to replace bilingual education with structured English immersion.

But the district’s bilingual program can no longer serve monolingual Spanish-speakers as soon as they enter school, as it once did. Instead, most native speakers of Spanish are placed in the program only after they acquire a “good working knowledge of English,” as required by the state law, Proposition 203. A few others make it into the program after meeting other conditions of the law.

Nopal Elementary School’s bilingual program is a dual-language program in which native speakers of Spanish and of English are mixed in the same classrooms and learn both languages. Such programs are sometimes called two-way bilingual education programs and are growing in popularity across the country.

Pam Betten, the principal of Nopal Elementary, which has 771 students, said her faculty and staff had put their “heart and soul” into researching and then setting up the program in the 1998-99 school year, had found over time that it worked, and wanted to preserve it.

She said the size of the program has been reduced because of Proposition 203. The school now enrolls only 30 percent of its students in dual-language classes; it once enrolled 60 percent.

Under Proposition 203, English-language learners can be placed in bilingual programs only if their parents seek waivers from structured English immersion—and they can get waivers only under certain conditions.

The Arizona law is similar to Proposition 227, a measure approved by voters in California in 1998 to curtail bilingual education there.

But, as presenters at the session pointed out, because of differences in how the laws are written, it’s harder for parents to get waivers under Proposition 203 than under California’s Proposition 227.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week


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