Thursday, September 25, 2014

Of 'educated' cities, national rankings and English learners

Many Salinas residents were upset by a recent analysis that ranked their city as second least "educated" in the United States. If you missed the hoopla, here's a story I wrote about it.

In spite of the metrics that were used for the analysis -- and its hurtful conclusion -- I believe there's value in the conversation that ensued. Particularly around trying to diversify the local economy so we don't lose our college graduates to Silicon Valley or other parts of the country. Just last week I met a smart, dedicated young woman who told me she was ready to return to L.A. this summer -- where she earned her bachelor's degree -- because she couldn't find a job in Salinas.

So yes, let's talk about what we can do to increase educational and job opportunities for our students (the study did not take into account people younger than 25, so  whether or not they're "educated" is surely irrelevant to WalletHub, right?). Let's try to find creative solutions to our budgetary problems. Let's try to increase literacy among our farmworking population.

But one thing we should NOT do is blame this issue in our English Language Learners. If anything, we have a broken system that fails to recognize what an asset it is to be able to speak more than one language. Instead, we want to blame low academic performance in our young kids who grow up speaking Spanish at home. So why have double immersion programs spread so much if they're ineffective? Why is it that children who attend bilingual schools do better than in monolingual schools? Why is it that research shows bilingual people are smarter?

Last week, a day after the WalletHub study was published, a letter writer came close to blaming Spanish language speakers for the Salinas dishonor. Michael McMillen from Salinas wrote that "extremists .. would insist on full literacy in their native language; this means that there would be no English-Language instruction until roughly ninth grade."

First of all, I've never seen anybody ask children in the United States have no English language instruction until the 9th grade. Every bilingual program you see, be it dual immersion or structure English immersion, has instruction in English. Second, children are not learning "survival English." They're being taught academic English. Maybe their vocabulary is limited and they are behind their native English-speaking peers, but not taking advantage of the fact that they already speak a universally accepted language -- spoken by 470 million people on this planet -- would be a real shame.

So instead of blaming English learners for our educational woes, perhaps a more reasonable response would be, how can we make sure all of our children speak more than one language so they can be prepared for this globalized economy? Now, that would be a conversation worth having.

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