An Interview with Johanna Haver: Vindicated: Closing the Hispanic Achievement Gap

Sep 22, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1.  Johanna, first, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your education and experience?

I am a retired teacher with 32 years of experience in the areas of German, Latin, reading, English, and English as a second language in K-12 schools and at the university level.  

In addition, I taught English as a foreign language at a German “Gymnasium” in Essen-Steele for one year and several years later in Himeji, Japan, as a Phoenix Sister City teacher at a Japanese high school for two years.

Both times, I brought along my daughter.  She was able to pick up German quickly and painlessly at age 4 at her German kindergarten where neither her teachers nor the other children spoke English.  Seventeen years later, that experience enabled her, as a young adult, to pick up Japanese easily in a Japanese immersion program at Dokkyo University in the city where we lived. After that, she became an intern for a Japanese congressman at the Diet in Tokyo for nearly two years.

After returning from Japan in 1989, I taught English as a second language full time to mostly Spanish-speaking English learners in a Phoenix high school.  After the school’s conversion to bilingual education, my Hispanic students progress in English slowed down to a snail’s pace.  It was difficult for them to learn English when their classmates and most of their teachers were addressing them mostly in Spanish.  These children needed to be immersed in English and that was not happening except for the two hours per day that they spent with me.

One year, several Hispanic students who were doing well in my English as a second language class requested that I arrange for them to be transferred at the end of the semester to sheltered history, math, and science classes where the English learners whose first languages were other than Spanish received their instruction in English.  I made the request to the students’ guidance counselor but nothing happened.   When I sought an explanation, I was told, “We need those students in those classes to justify the bilingual program.”  

Like many other schools throughout the country, this school was receiving federal grant money conditional on student participation.  No consideration was given regarding the individual needs of a student.  I found this outrageous and wanted to do something about it so eventually before retiring, I became involved in the English for the Children movement.  Ron Unz, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, had been successful in creating a citizens’ initiative for the purpose of derailing bilingual education for English learners in California.  His ballot measure had passed with 61 percent of the vote in 1998.

2.  So, your own experiences motivated you to join Ron Unz’s movement?

Partially.  In addition, I became aware that the English learners in two large Phoenix area school districts were learning through immersion methods rather than bilingual education.  At Alhambra Elementary School District, located in a low-income area of Phoenix, the mostly Hispanic English learners were being totally immersed in English as early as pre-school and doing incredibly well– especially when compared to the English learners in other Phoenix elementary school districts where they were learning mostly through bilingual methods.  In a high school district with schools in both Phoenix and neighboring Glendale, mainstream teachers were trained to teach English learners their core subjects in English without segregating them from the other students.  The English learners in that district were also showing impressive academic success.

3.   Now, tell us about your book, vindicated: Closing the Hispanic Achievement Gap through English Immersion.

This book is the second edition to my book English for the Children named after Ron Unz’s movement that I have mentioned.  This book reviews Unz’s campaigns and presents updates on the policies and progress of the English learner programs in the five states where he supported ballot measures to limit bilingual education for English learners: California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, where voters approved Unz’s initiatives overwhelmingly; Colorado, where voters rejected Unz’s ballot measure; and New York City, where Unz wanted to create a ballot measure but realized it was too difficult because of the laws there.

The book is titled Vindicated because of the evidence presented in this book that shows Hispanic English learners to be performing considerably better in the states that passed the initiatives than in the two states that have continued with bilingual education and English as a second language programs.  In fact, in the Maricopa County Community College District, in Arizona where the Unz law has been enforced most strictly, the data shows that every year a greater number of Hispanic students, of which about half are former English learners, attend the Maricopa community colleges and have gradually measured up to the non-Hispanic whites in achievement.

4.  Can we conclude that you oppose dual-language programs that have become so popular lately?

Yes and no.  I realize many parents are choosing dual-language programs for their children because of the advantages of their becoming bilingual.  I certainly understand this in that I saw how well it worked for my own daughter.  However, these programs can and should function without the inclusion of English learners who need to catch up in English as soon as possible so they can become bilingual and successful in this county, rather than remain mostly monolingual in Spanish and on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.  

Typically, English learners in dual-language or transitional bilingual education receive only 10 to 35 percent of their instruction in English in the early grades.   it increases to 50 and 60 percent in the fourth and fifth grades. Considering that they spend most of their time at school and at home hearing and speaking Spanish, it becomes impossible for them to ever catch up to the English-dominant students academically.  

5.  Now how do you measure this “achievement gap” – what data or measures do you rely on?

I found information at the websites of school districts, the states’ departments of education, and Ed Data Express, which is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education.  In addition, I was able to include data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the National Center for Educational Statistics, two longitudinal studies, and several other organizations that track schools’ academic achievement.  Above all, I considered two elements: (1) what percentage of English learners reached English language proficiency on average over an 8-year period, qualifying them to enter the mainstream and (2) how well did these former English learners perform academically when transferred into the mainstream, in comparison to the other students.

6. Are there cultural issues that teachers need to be aware of in terms of closing this gap?

Whereas there are cultural differences that teachers should be aware of, this book does not deal with that aspect of English learner education.  

It does show that Hispanic parents of ELLs have been left out of the decision-making process through coercion.  School officials attempt to persuade parents into allowing their children to participate in transitional bilingual or dual-language programs. Boston University Professor Christine Rossell expressed it well in her comprehensive study on California ELL programs where she likened the situation to medical care, “Teachers, like doctors, create supply by the criteria they use to define a child as needing treatment and they create demand by telling the patient what treatment he or she needs.”  The parents of Hispanic English learners love their children, the same as other parents. They want what is best for them so they should be taken seriously and not forced into agreeing to something they will likely regret later on.

7.  How does English immersion differ from the common English as a second language method that many teachers use?

In my book, I focus on structured English immersion, the process by which teachers instruct students step-by-step in English, using the native language only minimally such as to make clear a direction or to offer a quick translation of a complex concept. On the other hand, students in English as a second language classes may or may not receive most of their instruction in English.

8.  What are the key instructional strategies for structured English immersion?  Do you focus on language or vocabulary or reading or what?

What works best for young ELL beginners is to develop listening skills first.  This can be done by teaching them to respond physically to commands such as “sit down,” “stand up,” “go to the window,” and so on.  This process happens naturally in pre-school and kindergarten for all students – which is an argument for not separating ELLs who are 4 to 6 years old from English-dominant children of the same age.

My experience has been that children respond well to lessons structured in such a way that they are able to practice specific grammatical elements while developing basic vocabulary.  Gradually, the lessons move from the simple to the complex – with students listening and responding appropriately.  My book Structured English Immersion published by Corwin Press in 2003 provides a step-by-step plan of instruction in which each aspect of the language builds on another, with plenty of opportunities for practice.

Regarding literacy, there is ample evidence that English learners learn to read best through systematic phonics programs.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I believe we have covered the subject well and I thank you for the opportunity.  

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