Rosalie Pedalino Porter`s American Story: Her Life In Three Languages, But Only One Country

 

After arriving in the US at the age of 6, one of a large Italian family in which no English was spoken, little “Rosalie Pedalino di Littleton Avenue went from “painfully” experiencing public school as “a haze of incomprehensible sounds” to becoming fellow at Harvard, an English as a Second Language Program Director—and an outspoken critic of “bilingual education”.

But this isn`t your run-of-the-mill New York Times-style enterprising-immigrant story. Rosalie Pedalino Porter took her assimilation experience and put it to good use.

In American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages, Porter lays out her no-nonsense approach to the helping new immigrant children become new Americans: immersion in the English language—a cause which eventually caused her to enlist in Ron Unz`s remarkable anti-bilingual education initiative campaigns

The book chronicles Porter`s Sisyphean struggle against the cowards and educrats who blocked her every step and attempted to undermine her very tangible successes. It`s a familiar story for those of us involved in the immigration reform movement: if you criticize the status quo, you are a racist; if your changes improve any environment, they must be blocked by red tape; if you deserve promotion you`d better be a favored minority.

Porter writes that in 1970, after five years of classroom teaching, she began after-school and evening classes to complete a master`s degree at the University of Massachusetts, the last few courses she needed were in socio-linguistics, statistics and measurement of cognitive development. They left her increasingly disillusioned with bilingual education. Not one of the theories she was taught had been borne out in her classroom experience. But although the problems were now obvious to her and to many of her colleagues, there was no public complaint. The UMass teacher training in bilingual education was firmly entrenched and politically unassailable. In fact, it expanded, adding “the requirement to call our field Bilingual/Bicultural Education, mandating the teaching of each child`s `culture`—opening the door to another time-wasting piece of foolishness.”

In opposition to what she was being taught, Porter reached five conclusions:

  • “Teaching Spanish-speaking children in Spanish most of the school day for three years does not help them learn English well enough to do their schoolwork in English.
  • “Hiring Puerto Rican teachers, many of whom could not speak English, as `bilingual` teachers in Massachusetts does not promote the learning of English.
  • “Segregating limited-English students by language and ethnicity most of the school day for several years does not promote higher self-esteem and may reinforce feelings of inferiority by being kept out of the mainstream of school life.
  • “Taking time out of the school day to teach the `culture` of Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican child defies reason and deprives those student of time better spent on math, science, U.S. history, art, music, or more English-language lessons. Families maintain traditions distinctive to their ethnicity at home—this should not be a responsibility of our public schools.
  • “No educational initiative should be above critical review, but this program was above reproach, with even constructive criticism viewed as racist or nativist, thus frightening off anyone who might dare to voice an alternate plan.”

Porter notes that the Puerto Rican parents whom she interviewed when they arrived to enroll their students in school had no interest in the idea of la educacion bilingue. She was required by law to describe the program to the parents (which she did in Spanish) and obtain their signature on a consent form, thus locking their children into three years or more of “bilingual”—a.k.a. mostly Spanish-language—instruction. The parents would almost always say in effect: “Okay, teacher, that`s nice. But I want my Jose to learn English. I want him to do good in school and grow up to have a better life than me.” In a familiar paradox, it was not the parents who wanted two-language education for their children, but the Latino “leaders”, who were ramming through laws to mandate an untested experiment that had no research evidence to support its value.

Porter proceeded to design her own supposedly “bilingual” schedule of instructions, with the approval (“tacit but wary”)of her school principal. With her older students, fifth and sixth graders ages ten to fourteen, she used the two-hour block every morning (designated “Language Arts”) as the time for intensive teaching of English language—speaking, reading, writing—to advance their ability to use the language as quickly as possible to learn school subjects in English. She reports that they made remarkable progress—“but this was in defiance of state law, which would have had me teaching in language arts only in Spanish.”

She found the same in an afternoon block devoted to

“math/science/social studies…it is amazing how soon student understood enough vocabulary to do science experiments, math problems and history lessons in English…I began my private rebellion against the state bureaucracy.”

Porter took these observations and ran with them—getting both her masters and her Ed.D. in the field of language education and being hired to run the bilingual program in Newton, MA. Her rebellious program saw remarkable success: students overcame their lack of English in an average of one to two years, and the dropout rate for students entering the high school without knowledge of English dropped to less than one percent.

On the other hand, Newton was constantly harassed by state education bureaucrats claiming immigrant “civil rights” violations. They even attempted to have Porter`s doctoral thesis dismissed on the grounds that it would be “damaging for bilingual education.

Porter`s work and travel often overlapped. American Immigrant is half a chronicle of Porter`s advancement into the field of bilingual education and half travelogue. At one point in the 1980s, Porter was able to spend a day with at a Japanese elementary school, she came to compelling conclusions:

“Professionally, my day at the Saho Elementary School in the lovely city of Nara reversed many of my stereotypical ideas about Japanese education. Among public educators in the United States it is widely believed that Japanese schools are too regimented, that students spend long days in rote learning, doing boring, repetitive lessons—nothing to compare with the child-centered, innovative, creative days enjoyed by American school children. For shame, that we should be so provincial. My colleagues in Newton blithely dismissed the fact that on comparable measures of math and science learning, for example, Japanese students at eighth-grade level are generally among the top performers, while U.S. students score near the bottom, year after year. However, on the accompanying survey of student evaluations of their own achievement, U.S. students score highest in self-esteem while Japanese are modestly near the bottom. Need I say it? Our children, in the decades since the explosive 1960s, have been brought up to feel very good about themselves, even if they do not actually learn very much!

“My colleagues excuse poor U.S. performance by proclaiming that in other countries only elite students take the eighth-grade tests, while here all the students are tested. Not true! By the very strict guidelines of the International Math and Science achievement tests, all the student at that grade level take the tests. I reported back to Newton the following elements in Japan that lead to high student achievement: a long school day (eight hours to our six) and long school year (240 versus our 180 days), deep societal respect for schoolteachers, a predominant ratio of mothers at home and available to help children with homework, and a homogeneous population with almost no influx of immigrants. [VDARE.COM emphasis] Like or not, these conditions produce highly educated citizenry. “

Despite Porter`s title, this is just about her only reference to immigration policy. But without it, the problem of foreign language students would simply not exist.

Of course, Ron Unz combined his heroic financial support of the anti-bilingual education initiatives with fanatical immigration enthusiasm. Although his position is uniquely eccentric, there is no doubt that many opponents of bilingual education prefer not to think about the problem`s root cause. In an email to me, Porter writes: “Immigrant students as a group need extra help to be able to benefit from the opportunities in our education system for upward mobility, active participation as contributing citizens of this country. That extra help costs money and when the non-English speaking group grows as fast as it has in recent decades, the drain on public schools takes resources from the mainstream students.”

A personal note: I have traditionalist qualms about Porter`s decision to live away from her family in order to make a difference in the sphere of bilingual education. A liberal Democrat and adamant feminist, Porter worked away from her husband and son for about half of every week for several years, driving back and forth between Amherst and Newton, Mass. She was thrilled by the opportunity to flex her muscles and glosses over the more unpleasant implications of her ambitions. Porter`s son did report that he was quite comfortable with her absence, saying “Some of my friends don`t see their parents who are divorced as much as I see you”. Somehow, I don`t find that very comforting.

But I can`t deny that Porter`s impressive energy has had an important impact. Although her book says little about enforcement in the years since the last Unz anti-bilingual education initiative in 2002, or about the current situation in non-initiative states (the great majority, alas), she continues to work against this ineffective, expensive and ultimately nation-breaking policy.

As recently as 2009 Porter was an expert witness on the winning side of Flores v. Arizona, a bilingual education case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Alito, writing the majority opinion, cited Porter`s research.

But, as Porter herself notes sadly, the case was returned to the district court, not dismissed outright. [Porter: A victory for students still learning English, GateHouse News Service, August 9, 2009]The struggle continues. It will never end, until America`s ongoing post-1965 immigration disaster is halted by an immigration moratorium.

Athena Kerry (email her) recently graduated from a Catholic university somewhere in America.