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Why can't they just teach their kids English?

By Len Rieser on Feb 18, 2010 07:02 PM

Of all the grumpy things that people say about immigrants, one of the more unusual is that they don’t sit their kids down on arrival and teach them English.  But that’s one of several points made by Christopher Paslay in an op-ed earlier this week.

Before I get to Mr. Paslay’s exact words, I should mention that I agree with at least one of his arguments, which is that educators are often expected to produce miraculous results even though they haven't been given the resources and support that they need in order to do their job.  That’s so, so true – and it’s one reason why the continuing (and thus far, rather successful) effort to make the state education budget more adequate and equitable are so important.  

But back to immigrants. Here’s what concerns Mr. Paslay: 

"If you just moved to this country and haven't taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him."

So let's say you just got here from Latvia, or Uruguay, or Senegal. You want to do the right thing and teach your son English. But there's one small problem: you don't speak English yourself. After all, you just arrived from a non-English-speaking country.

That’s why we ask schools to provide English-as-a-second-language instruction to children who come to America from other countries. It’s not exactly a new idea, having been around for a century or two. Courts have repeatedly held that it’s required by two federal laws, the Equal Education Opportunities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there’s a Pennsylvania state regulation on the same point. And, except in Paslay’s column, I’ve almost never seen the idea attacked; even the fiercest of “English-only” advocates are passionate on the importance of teaching English to new arrivals.

On, then, to the assertion that “The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for [your son].”  In fact, the District spends a total of $6,960.63 per year, per student (according to 2007-08 figures, the most recent available), for the entire instructional program – so if we assume a seven-period day, two periods of which are devoted to ESOL (which would be unusual), we’re looking at maybe $2,000. Moreover, since that ESOL class replaces “regular” English, there’s a partial wash in terms of cost. 

At this rate, your son would have to spend fifty years in ESOL before he would have consumed even the first of the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” that he is accused of costing the system. 

Finally, a comment on those “special English-as-a-second-language teachers” who, Mr. Paslay suggests, wouldn’t be needed if immigrant parents did their job. I agree on one point – those teachers, like so many others, really are special. They’re folks who have acquired the skills (and have the commitment) necessary to help kids from other countries quickly learn to speak, read, write, and understand English, not just well enough to function on the street but to a level at which they can succeed academically.   

In a future column, a look at another one of Mr. Paslay’s issues, which involves parents who fail to prevent their children from having disabilities.

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Comments (23)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 19, 2010 10:59 am

Well, i doubt people from Uruguay -The Switzerland of America- is interested in coming to the US, given that the country is broken and controled by a few super rich.... i bet nowadays are more Americans emigrating to Uruguay, which provides basic social services such as health and has a more democratic and libertarian society...

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on February 19, 2010 10:52 pm

In defense of Mr. Paslay (whom I do not personally know), I interpreted his op-ed in a different way. As a fellow teacher in Phila. public schools, I believe he was writing in frustration against parents and families who basically think the school can accomplish everything. As Mr. Rieser correctly points out, a child may only receive ELL services one period a day (or in my school 1.5 days a week)--therefore, parents may need to be proactive in seeking out varying opportunities for their children to learn English. Many do not see this as in any way as their responsibility. Is this difficult for new immigrants--undoubtedly! But is it very important that they do it? Yes! There are many immigrant parents who do just that. The same holds true for parents of children with disabilities. As a teacher at a school with a very high number of special education students (whom we serve gladly and well), I have seen the gamut of parents. Some (and it does not always tie to SES) seek out and take advantage of every opportunity for their children, and some believe the school is there to take care of every issue with no help from them. I do not think anyone would argue against proper ELL classes and appropriate accommodations for disabled children; however, no school and no teacher (however wonderful) can take the place of interested, proactive parenting. We need parents (there is NO ONE more powerful in a child's life) to work with us and for their children. This does not mean telling a middle school student with an IEP--you don't have to do your work, they can't fail you (believe me, some parents say this). What it does mean is telling your child to do their personal best--and maybe helping them a little at home. I certainly do not mean to slam parents of Special ed kids--about 20% of my seventh graders have an IEP, and most parents are cooperative and expect a good effort from their children. Unfortunately, some do not. It is those parents I believe Mr. Paslay was railing against ( of course, I am not a mind reader).

Submitted by Len Rieser on February 20, 2010 8:00 am

On the importance of parenting, well put and I agree.  On whether that's what Mr. Paslay meant, I agree it's possible -- but it's not what he wrote.  Given the complexity of these issues, and the number of people out there who seem ready to bash whoever's served up to them next, I think it's a mistake to put things in such absolute (inflammatory?) terms.

My own unscientific, 35-year survey of parents of children with disabilities, English language learners, and others, leads me to about the place where you seem to be.  Most are responsible, responsive, and committed to doing the best that they can for their children -- including setting expectations for them and pushing (and helping) them to succeed.  Some, including a number of amazing people whose circumstances are a lot tougher than mine, have been parenting "models" for me -- I hope I've done half as well.  Then there are the exceptions, including some very upsetting ones.  But I wouldn't base my description of parents in general on these exceptions.  Thanks for your comment. 

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on February 20, 2010 8:48 am

I agree about the upsetting tone of some (maybe most) of the education discourse lately. Things tend to stay on a pretty good level at The Notebook, but some of the posts in the Inky and DN comment pages are incredibly upsetting. There are many posts which tend to demonize all urban parents and kids for the sins of the few. I find the whole "these people" argument (as in these people cannot be educated, etc..) very disturbing. Of course, I guess seeing some people as irrevocably "other" is an old defense mechanism, but it is not productive for society. Anyway, I enjoy your posts and point-of-view, Mr. Rieser.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2010 11:23 am

Kids only receive ELL if it's at their school. I know of one case where the teacher had to fight to get the child moved to a school where there was an ELL because there was none at their school. The child had been in the school the previous year and had no ELL teacher for either year.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 20, 2010 9:00 am

Mr. Paisley treads in the time worn track of blaming the victim.   Let’s stop coddling these immigrants and minorities and subject them to some real accountability like we poor suffering teachers have to endure.   No more whining about racism and poverty.  Grab hold of those bootstraps and get to work.    

Perhaps Mr. Paisley can have his English class read Jonathan

Swift's "A Modest Proposal" in which he suggested the solution to the immorality, indolence and iresponsbility of the Irish was have them eat their own children.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2010 11:30 am

Funny how immigrants were able to learn our lingo for the first couple of centuries. You can't blame everything on racism and poverty. Those things existed when the immigrants were coming through Ellis Island a hundred years ago and yet they managed to get with the program. Stop blaming Mr. Paisley. Would the Mexicans be "coddling" me if I moved there to live and failed to learn Spanish? When in Rome. . . .

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 20, 2010 1:58 pm

Those immigrants who came throught Ellis Island a hundred years ago learned English at about the same rate as today's immigrants, often helped by "accomodations" like bi-lingual public schools.   See:

If you moved to Mexico I would assume you would be happy if your children got some help in school learning Spanish as ESOL programs do for immigrant students here. 

Submitted by Gustavo Martínez on February 21, 2010 9:14 am

Immigrants learned our lingo? What are you talking about? Those immigrants who didn't learn "our lingo" are long gone along with their children and the children of their children who somehow learned and shaped this lingo of ours—or was it Shakespeare's lingo?—.

Do you think there was a Super Bowl right after the Mayflower reached Plymouth? How come we didn't learn the Unami, the Munsee, the Cherokee, the Mexica, the Tzotzil, the Tarahumara or any other of the then-prevailing lingoes when "we" got here? I mean, when in Rome...

It's funny that you put the example of moving to Mexico because in cities like San Miguel de Allende or Cancún, Mexicans learn English to welcome the hordes US citizens moving down there. 

Buen domingo y saludos!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 21, 2010 10:10 am

Muy bien, Gustavo. I suspect that Mexicans learn English because they want the gringos to patronize their businesses. Much in the same way Americans will learn Spanish if they want to attract Spanish-speaking customers.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 27, 2010 8:43 am


Great idea! I'll have my classes read "A Modest Proposal" this week!

Submitted by Gustavo Martínez on February 21, 2010 12:47 pm

First, only gringos call gringos gringos. The appropriate term is gabacho. Second, yeah, it all has to do with economics and the irony of it all is that the same system that displaced them from their country of origin now allows them to work, open up businesses and contribute to their new country. There's a bunch of studies showing that and you can find a couple of them here and here. Thus it only makes sense that the marketplace we call our land respects and addresses the needs of those customers who in some way or another pay into the system. If that wasn't the case, I think they'd deserve a refund.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 21, 2010 9:23 pm

I'll have to tell those Mexican cats to stop calling me a "gringo" I guess. The terms was used by Mexicans who heard the Yankees singing the tune "Green Grows the Grass" during the Mexican War of 1848. I've never heard any of my homies calling each gringos so I truly doubt that gringos call themselves gringos. I'll email the popular Ask A Mexican column which seems to be elusive in these parts, but is out west in Westword.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 22, 2010 7:00 pm

Green Grows the Lilacs was the tune, actually. Green Grows the Grass was the B-side, I guess.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 21, 2010 9:02 pm

Those gabachos created one of the most successful economies on earth...

Aren't gabachos those things you put in a salad?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 23, 2010 10:09 pm

As I've observed it, the system is ineffectual at best. I've had one student go without ESOL the entire year because the region has just one person to go between all of the schools without an ESOL teacher. Months of documentation and notification--nothing. Two others were helped once a week last year and could still benefit from the help. All three are from different countries in Africa and speak unique dialects. One of the students is in foster care--what is he/she to do? Extensive travel and my own love of language learning have given me a sense of just how frustrating this whole situation must be for the kids, in addition to any other difficulties they encounter in their home life.

As an aside, I wish the district would put some money toward multilingualism and designate some schools as two-way bilingual schools, so that English- and Spanish-speakers could work together towards becoming bilingual and biliterate, all without devaluing/denying Latino students' culture. If they were to open a school like that, I would be beating on the door to work there.

Submitted by Len Rieser on February 23, 2010 11:28 pm

I can't let that comment (and another one like it, earlier in this conversation) go by without mentioning again that the law is clear that all students who need ESOL are entitled to it.  One can argue sometimes over how much ESOL, but the law is actually pretty good on that as well.  So if you know a family that could use help dealing with a situation in which their child is not receiving ESOL, we (Education Law Center) are happy to talk with them.  

Of course, I know that some immigrant families will not want to be assertive in these kinds of situations -- for lots of good reasons.  But other families will, and there are often things that they can do.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 27, 2010 8:31 am


Thanks for pointing out my mistaken assertion that “The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers” for children of immigrants. I checked the Philadelphia School District’s 2009-10 budget, and they actually spend $34,462,499 on English language learners. That’s 34 MILLION, with an “M”. I guess I underestimated.

God bless

Submitted by Paul Socolar on February 27, 2010 12:00 pm

Thanks for checking Len's math for us. $34.5 million is going to serve 12,000 students in English language learner programs districtwide. That works out to about $2,870 per student. for ELL services.

Using your logic, you might as well go on to point out that the District is paying Philadelphia teachers a staggering $1.2 billion dollars to teach this son his various subjects. It's an outrage, isn't it?


Submitted by Len Rieser on February 27, 2010 2:00 pm

Chris's statement on the op-ed page of the Inquirer was:  "If you just moved to this country and haven't taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him."  [Emphasis mine.]

I read this to indicate that each non-English-speaking student costs the District hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I'm quite sure that most people would read it that way, "him" being a singular pronoun. 

In his comment above, Chris alters what he wrote -- changing "for him" to "for children of immigrants," suggesting that he was talking about aggregate costs all along.  Maybe that's what he meant to be doing -- but it's not what he wrote.

Chris's statement -- that is, the version that was published in the Inquirer -- concerned me, because it drastically overstated the cost per child for ESOL services.  That amount, as I explained, is a couple of thousand dollars for each year that the child receives ESOL (typically, a child receives ESOL for a few years only).  Read in context, Chris's statement seemed to me -- and I think would seem to most readers -- to be saying that the District was lavishing enormous sums on services that could have been avoided if immigrant parents had done their job.  This seemed, and still seems, entirely wrong to me.

I think it's dangerous to paint with too casual a brush in this area.  There's plenty of resentment of immigrants out there already, and plenty of people ready to believe overstatements about what immigrants cost our public schools.

Submitted by Jenny Scott - ICAL TEFL (not verified) on July 10, 2013 9:29 am
"If you just moved to this country and haven't taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him." ...for him... Yes, because girls don't need education... :(
Submitted by Garry (not verified) on March 6, 2015 4:28 am

It is not easy to catch English especially in the case of students. The will try to follow their regional language. But in school level teachers can help the students to learn microsoft outlook support English through interactio classes.

Submitted by Robert Watss (not verified) on April 2, 2015 9:22 am

It is not easy to catch English especially in the case of students. The will try to follow their regional language. But in school level teachers can help the students to learn some abilities to coul do some things. taśmy transportujące

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