• by María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 1996 •
Editor’s Note: Dr. Robledo Montecel delivered the keynote presentation to the Rio Grande Valley Texas Association for Bilingual Education in September. This is an adaptation of the text of that presentation.
To begin, I want to say a word of congratulations to all of you. As bilingual educators, you have welcomed our children and nurtured them – in two languages. You have stimulated their curiosity and imagination – in two languages. You have provided a safe place for them to be active young learners – in two languages.
You have opened your arms and your hearts to them, and you have done so in a language they understand – in the language of their parents and of their parents’ parents. In doing so, you have made possible what would have been unthinkable only 30 years ago when in this state, teachers who spoke Spanish in the classroom were committing a Class A misdemeanor.
As bilingual educators, you have supported each other, enriched each other, shared concerns and successes together and – most importantly – you have made a difference in the lives of children here in the Valley who bring to your schools the richness that is the Spanish language. Just as yesterday’s children are today’s leaders, today’s children are our leaders of tomorrow.
As Hispanic people, we bring much that is vital to our future as a nation. We are leaders in policy development in the U.S. Cabinet, in the halls of Congress, in state capitols, in city governments, in schools, in boards of education, in classrooms and in neighborhoods. Political campaigners try to woo Hispanic voters, not because it is politically correct, but because the smart ones recognize the power of Hispanic voters.
We are leaders in the world of work. More and more, we own businesses and head up corporations. With a current population of 27 million Hispanics in the United States, purchasing power alone is expected to reach $477 billion by the year 2000.
We have greatly influenced the culture of this society, more significantly than many people realize. The popular media talks about the growth in the number of Mexican restaurants and reports, with amazement, that the Macarena is now the most dancedto song. Even Vice President Gore did his very unique rendition of La Macarena on national television.
What is not reported as well in the media or elsewhere are the contributions of our values of family, of community and of faith. As technology booms and the world shrinks, these strengths will become the foundation of our country. In about 50 years, Hispanics will be the largest population group in the nation – one out of every four faces. That prediction alone is what has sparked some of the fires we are fighting today.
Earlier, I mentioned political campaigners wanting our votes. They want our votes and at the same time they are seeking ways to reduce our numbers and power. For example, the U.S. Congress has been debating immigration policy. No problem. Any sovereign nation has a right to establish and enforce immigration policy.
Part of that debate, however, was an amendment by Rep. Elton Gallegly of California that would allow states to close school doors to the children of undocumented workers. It becomes problematic when people are made to believe that children of undocumented workers are making our schools poor. Children do not make schools poor. Poor policies make schools poor.
In Texas, schools depend on property taxes for revenue. If a school district has to rely only on taxing low wealth properties within its boundaries, it will have less revenue even with greater support.
Children do not make schools poor. Schools are poor because many people continue
to believe it is okay for some children to look at the sky through leaky roofs and repatched holes in roofs while others look through planetariums. Schools are poor because the Texas Supreme Court, in its school finance decision, said it is okay for some children to get a privileged education as long as all have a minimally adequate education.
In a second example of the fires we are fighting today, moves for Englishonly
laws have stirred up again. More than 20 states have official English laws, and Congress is considering several proposals. The one with the most support would require government agencies to conduct official business in English. It may sound harmless to many people since most government communications are in English anyway, but such measures would have many serious consequences – intended and unintended.
Englishonly laws would affect courtrooms and people’s right to a fair trial. They would cause hardship for some businesses. They may disenfranchise citizens from the voting process. They may limit or end altogether bilingual education and effective programs that teach English. They are probably unconstitutional.
What Englishonly laws do not do is provide more opportunities for learning English. Bilingual education provides opportunities for learning English, and yet, all research and professional development money for bilingual education was cut from the Office of Bilingual Education in the U.S. Department of Education. English classes for adults provide opportunities for learning English, and yet, every year thousands and thousands of people are turned away from English classes because there is no room and no allocation of resources.
We are also dealing with heightened negative perceptions about what bilingual education is. A family in the state of New York has sued the school district because their child was placed in a bilingual program. The family believed this would hold back their child.
There is a very long list of challenges that we face. But, being here with you today, I am reminded f the good things. There is reason to celebrate. As I see the faces of our children, of these young people from Derry Elementary School, I know there is hope.
After much work, most of the provisions in California’ Proposition 187 – including the education restrictions – have been ruled unconstitutional and thrown out by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The moves to cut off education of children of undocumented workers are stopped for the moment.
People are speaking out against the English-only proposals: city councils, chambers of commerce, business organizations, police and civic organizations, columnists and editorial boards. Many organizations, like IDRA, are speaking for English-plus, which encourages using English plus other languages. And the majority of U.S. voters support bilingual education as a better way for children to learn English and excel in all their subjects.
Thirty-one years ago, bilingual education was conceived at the federal level. It was conceived as an act of faith. We believed and hoped it would work. But there was no way to know for sure. We just knew that what had been done before was not working. Now we know that the most effective way to teach English to children who speak another language is through an adequate bilingual education program. There is much evidence to support this: the evidence of research and the evidence of children’s achievement and selfesteem.
We often talk about bilingual education as something apart from everything else. But just as Hispanics are contributing to the larger society, bilingual education can contribute to the larger educational system.
Historically, our educational system has been designed to “select and sort”: To select and sort the smart from the not so smart, the future corporate executives from the laborers, the easy to teach from the “troublemakers.”
Designed to serve White middleclass Englishspeaking students, schools select and sort very well. Minorities lag behind in educational achievement. Hispanics have the highest dropout rates in Texas and in the country.
But, we all pay a price. For every group of students that drops out each year, the Texas economy loses $1.17 billion in criminal justice and social service costs and in lost tax revenue. By the year 2000 – just four years from now – up to 80 percent of the jobs in the United States will require cognitive, rather than manual skills. More than half of the jobs will require at least some postsecondary education.
We cannot afford to not prepare our children for the next millennium. Our future leaders need knowledge, problemsolving skills, confidence in themselves and, most importantly, a sense of vision for all.
When bilingual education was conceived, it was not conceived to “Select and sort.” It was conceived to “bridge and build.” Our intention was to greet children at the schoolhouse door, to welcome them and to build on the strengths that they bring with them. Our intention was to bridge them into another language as they learn their subject matter.
We, as bilingual educators, can reform the larger educational system by teaching schools to “bridge and build” as well. What does this mean?
First, “bridge and build” means that all students must be taught in a language they understand. And they must be taught in that language until they are ready to succeed academically in English.
The Texas Education Agency reported this month that 60 to 70 percent of the third and fourth grade students failed the benchmark Spanishlanguage TAAS test. At the same time, the vast majority of 1,500 bilingual educators who were surveyed said that the students were adequately prepared.
When members of the State Board of Education talked about the report, many focused on the poor performance of the students. Commissioner Moses explained that most of the students tested in Spanish are economically disadvantaged, and that is why the scores were so low. He claimed that another factor is that the students and teachers lack experience with the test. So that is why the scores were so low.
More than one in nine of those students tested were in bilingual programs as opposed to ESL. But, the truth is that many of those programs are essentially English programs. A study by the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education found that English is used 66 percent of the time in kindergarten bilingual education programs. English is used 75 percent of the time in second grade.
So, if children are not being taught in Spanish, how can they be expected to test well in Spanish? How can they demonstrate what they have learned?
In one school, Barrack Elementary in Houston, LEP students are taught in their native language through the third grade. English is not introduced until the fourth grade. This past spring, at the end of the year, those fourth graders at Barrack took the Englishlanguage TAAS. They had very good scores. In fact, because of this, Barrack is categorized as a “recognized school.” Success stories like this one are also occurring in Valley schools.
So then, the critical question is not: Are the children capable of learning? It is not: Are they economically disadvantaged? It is not: Do they or their teachers have experience with the TAAS? The critical question is: Are the bilingual programs really bilingual? Are children being taught in the language they understand?
Effective bilingual education programs help children succeed. In doing so, we are linking the past with the future. We are building bridges and promoting opportunity.
Second, “bridge and build” means that families and communities will be involved in schools in new ways, in ways that build on the resources that families and communities offer.
Historically, schools have viewed parents through deficitmodel eyes. One widely accepted assumption is that something – or many things – are wrong with Hispanic students, their families and their communities. By the dim light of this deficit model, the school may see itself as trying to free the students from the faults and the weaknesses of their backgrounds.
I read recently about a proposal by John Henry Stanford, a retired Army general who is now heading up the Seattle Public Schools. He is advocating – among other things – that we issue report cards that grade parents.
After reading about that idea, I made a list of the criteria that parents would most probably be graded on if this were to be put in place. The criteria would probably include reviewing schoolwork with the child, helping the child with homework, providing a quiet place for homework to be done, talking to the teacher if the child is having difficulties and reading to the child for 15 minutes a day. These are things most of the parent involvement literature says work.
Then, I looked at this list and wondered what grade the parents of us in this room would have gotten when we were in school.
For the first criterion, many of our parents could not do a lot of “reviewing of our schoolwork” because they did not speak English. They also were not very schooled themselves, not formally at least.
For the second criterion, “helping the child with homework,” they could do that to the degree that it was possible with their not speaking English and their own limited formal education.
“Provide a quiet place for homework to be done.” Our parents could do whatever they could given that many of us lived in small houses, given that there were other kids besides ourselves and given that some of us moved to other places a few months out of the year to pick grapes or something.
“Talking to the teacher if the child is having difficulties.” Well, if our mothers talked to our high school teachers, the teachers would have a lot of trouble understanding our mothers’ Spanish because they only knew English.
And the last criterion, “reading to the child for 15 minutes a day.” I guess our parents would get a good grade on that if you counted Spanish. But probably not, because in most circles that’s a bit “suspect.”
So, if our parents had been graded on those criteria, they would have gotten a failing grade. Such is not the case. I give our parents an A+. They were the most educated people we knew in the truest sense of education. And they are the main reason we succeeded in school. As a matter of fact, from a deficit perspective, people would say that our success as educators is in spite of our parents, an aberration.
So, in terms of what works about educational reform, report cards and criteria like these for parents don’t work. They particularly don’t work given the stereotypes about our parents.
I tuned in to the Democratic Convention last month and heard Christopher Reeve speaking. Did you hear what he said? He said:
I know in the last few years we have heard about something called“family values.“And, like many of you, I have struggled to figure out what that means. Since my accident, I have found a definition that seems to make sense. I think it means that we are all family, and that we all have value. It’s so simple.
In the course of working with Hispanic students and families during the past almost2° decades, IDRA has developed and built a theory and practice of valuing families and students. The underlying philosophy accepts families as they are and works with their strengths. It regards students, their families and communities as offering resources. Successful programs organize and bridge these resources in support of the students’ efforts.
Third, “bridge and build” means that we will create bridges between schools and technology. All children must have the opportunity to testdrive these innovations. They must be prepared for tomorrow’s advances in technology.
This means making sure we have access to technology in bilingual classrooms.
This means having some level of understanding of the technology itself and how to apply it. It also means having increased levels of literacy because communicating and researching via computer, for example, requires strong writing, reading and spelling skills.
Fourth, “bridge and build” means that schools will acknowledge and build the ability of bilingual teachers to do their job. They will not be rushed into teaching the TAAS. Bilingual teachers will have the time to think and plan so that their classrooms will run smoothly. They will have access to training in new innovations and best practices. They will have the freedom to make decisions and “break the rules” in order to make their classrooms the best they can be. They will be allowed to make mistakes and experiment. They will be encouraged to use their special talents to make their classrooms a loving, learning place for children.
Finally, “bridge and build” means that we will hold ourselves accountable for where LEP students are in their learning. We will not buy into the deficitmodel belief that says “these kids can’t achieve.” We know better.
We must ensure that the new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills incorporate what is appropriate for bilingual students, not as a sidebar but as an integral part of the system. We must demand good policy and needed resources. We must assure that bilingual programs are quality programs and that we can demonstrate so in assessment and accountability ratings. We must document successes and tell others about those successes.
By valuing our students, we acknowledge that every student can be taught and that none is expendable.
Let me conclude with a little story. With your permission, I’ll do it in Spanish:
Érase que se era, en un pueblo lejano, bueno no era tan lejano, era en Téjas. Había un hombre de mucha distinción que sufrió muchas pérdidas en su negocio. Perdió todo y quedó en la calle.
En su desesperación acudió a Dios. Por favor Diosito, rezo un día, tienes que ayudarme. Por favor déjame ganar la lotería.
Nada. No hubo respuesta. El siguiente miércoles y el siguiente sábado, y nada. Y rezó con más fervor. Por favor mi Dios Santo, tienes que hacer algo. La única manera en que puedo salir de este apuro es ganando la lotería. Hazme que gane.
Así siguió por varias semanas. Cada miércoles y sábado rezaba con más ganas. El hombre pensó que Dios lo había abandonado. Estaba en las últimas. Por favor te lo ruego MI Dios. Todo lo que necesito Es ganar la lotería.
Después de UN momento, una voz le dijo (Dios Es bilingüe): “¡(Give me a break. Por lo menos vey cómprate UN boleto!”
Así que hay que comprar UN cachito de la lotería.
[There once was a man who suffered a severe financial setback. His business failed, and he just couldn’t land on his feet. He became destitute. Finally, in utter despair, he turned to God.
“Please, God,” he prayed, “You’ve got to help me. Please let me win the lottery.” There was no answer. No response.
The next day was no better. And he prayed again. “Please, God,” he prayed, “you’ve got to do something. The only way I’ll get back on my feet is if I win the lottery. Make me win.”
This went on for a few days. The man thought that God wasn’t hearing him. After a while he was beyond desperation. With the last breath of hope in his body, he turned to God. “I beg of you, dear God,” he said. “All I need is to win the lottery.”
After a moment of silence, a voice came back to him saying, “Give me a break. At least buy a ticket!”
Buying a ticket means taking action. It means acting on our commitment. If we are going to “bridge and build,” if we are going to prepare our children effectively and give them real choices in life, if we are going to celebrate Hispanic families and our successes, we must act now.
Dr. María Robledo Montecel is the executive director of IDRA. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail at email@example.com.
[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA November – December 1996 Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]