How Do You Say "The Cat Sat On The Mat" In Spanish?

Several years ago I participated, along with other California State Assembly staffers and members, in a literacy promotion program for elementary students in the California public school system.

I visited a second-grade classroom in Fresno. Before I sat down to read a book to the kiddies, I took the abbreviated tour of the facilities.

A chart on the wall demonstrated the proper use of contractions:

You are = you're

I am = I'm

We were = we're

I looked quizzically at the teacher and asked "You sure about this last one? Shouldn't it read we are?"

Speaking with an exceptionally strong Mexican accent, the teacher assured me that I was wrong: "Oh no, it's we were."

I know I have an inane tendency to fixate on minutiae. But come on.

"Not to be a pain, but I am positive it's we are" I said.

Then she said (and I really wish I was making this up) "I've been teaching English for four years now—I think I understand the use of compound words."

Whoa…pump the brakes, turbo! Compound words? Teaching English?

"English…you sure about that?" I asked. Not sensing my sarcasm, she nodded.

I took a moment to make a note to self:  My future children will not attend public school even if I have to sell my blood or a kidney to afford private education.

Side note: I have since changed my mind, but more on that in another column.

As it turned out, she was an English as a Second Language [ESL] teacher. This grammar school had such a large number of non-English speaking students that ESL teachers worked in regular classrooms as opposed to those designated for "special education."

Here's my question: Are we lowering the quality of education for English-speaking students by hiring teachers primarily for their ability to teach Spanish…as opposed to their ability to teach period?

Look at the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act, passed in January 2002.

By 2014, NCLB standards will supposedly close the learning gap between minority groups and their peers—and achieve comparable test scores in math, science, reading and language.

The unmentionable danger: schools will dumb down the real education of native-born English speaking students, who are more likely to pass the standardized tests, and focus their efforts on minority and non-English speaking students so they won't seem so "behind" in their testing.

Here are three, somewhat random examples of the collision between egalitarian dogma and demography, picked because they all occurred just within the 48 hours before my deadline.

  1. In California, ten school districts are suing the state for violations of the NCLB. ["PVUSD, nine other districts to sue state today over English language testing," By Donna Jones Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 1, 2005]

The suit is led by Pajaro Valley Unified School District, a district of 19,000 students, more than half of whom do not speak English.

California standardized tests require that students are tested in English only starting in second grade. But, Jones reports,

"Plaintiffs maintain the federal No Child Left Behind law permits testing in a student's primary language for at least three years…The state's current testing system demoralizes students and doesn't provide reliable data about achievement, plaintiffs argue."

We now have one government-funded albatross suing another—at tax-payers' expense y'all—because English language examinations demoralize students?

These students will be "left behind"—which violates the alleged essence of NCLB.

  1. It isn't just large states such as California. Smaller states such as Idaho are also facing problems with NCLB.

Hazel Bauman, Coeur d'Alene school district assistant superintendent, said it best:

"NCLB is more about civil rights than education. It (NCLB) forced the system to look at the sub-population" Bauman said. "It's ethical and it's the right thing to do, but average scores don't work because there are stories underneath. All students are not average." [The struggle of leaving no child behind 5/30/05 by Christi Wilhelm Hagadone News Network]

Ms. Bauman is technically referring to the inherently unfair nature of ranking schools by test proficiency when some school districts have more non-English speaking students than others.

However, the problem is not the NCLB standard of English-only exams—it's immigration policy and the creation of a school system where primary language has become an option and a civil right.

Simply put, the preservation of make-believe civil rights (e.g. language preference) has become more important than literacy. And as a result, our kids think "we're" means we were.

  1. The Spanish/English clash harms everybody—but, above all, educators who don't speak Spanish. They are going to lose jobs.

"A new proposal before the school board would force principals to learn the native language of the majority of students — for 43 percent of pupils at Dallas schools that language is Spanish." [Fox News, Dallas Principals Face Spanish Principle 6/01/05]

A Dallas School Board Trustee introduced this proposal after hearing from a group of "moms" who don't speak English and cite that discrepancy as the cause of their little uns' failing grades.

Oh, there's a surprise…little Juan is failing Math because his school principal only speaks English.

My suggestion: Maybe little Juan needs a different school…in a different country.

One of my favorite 20th century writings is C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon, Screwtape, instructs his nephew, Wormwood, on how to corrupt humans.

In the sequel, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, Lewis addressed the exact problem with programs such as the NCLB. He attacked the flaw behind the folly. And, by an amazing coincidence, he used the exact terminology (catch phrases) utilized by the NCLB.

  • The word "democracy," used "purely as an incantation," promotes a social influence forged from the spirit of "I'm as good as you are."

  • "It begins to work itself into their educational system… The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be 'undemocratic.'

Test scores will determine equality according to the NCLB, right?

  • "These differences between pupils—for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences—must be disguised… At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks."

  • "At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time…"

  • "Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma—Beelzebub, what a useful word—by being left behind."

Yes! Lewis used the phrase "left behind."

Now, pay attention to this last part:

  • "The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval's attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT."

Stay in the fight, America, or A Cat Sat On A Mat will be the extent of your child's reading comprehension.

And to add insult to injury, it will sound more like Un Gato Sentado…or something like that.

Bryanna Bevens [email her] is a political consultant and former chief of staff for a member of the California State Assembly.