Language Barriers: The New Segregation?

The practice of placing students in talented and gifted programs is viewed by some as being inherently unfair. After all, who determines what is considered “gifted” in the first place? Some studies have even found that gifted programs favor white students and that Black and Latino students are constantly overlooked. These claims are generally backed up with statistics that show an overwhelming proportion of white students in talented programs and under representation from other demographics.

I’ve written before about the New York Times findings at Public School 163 where one-third of the talented and gifted students are black or Hispanic combined but only 18 percent of the regular student population is white. Teachers there admit that the requirements to enter the program are parent-centric which tends to favor white families in that district. Outright admittance of discrimination is missing from the teacher reasoning, as expected, but the numbers seem to imply it.

But what about districts with obvious discriminatory practices in place? Take Illinois School District U-46, for example. In this particular district, over 40 percent of the student population is Latino but only 2 percent of the gifted program is from this demographic. In July, a federal district court judge found that the school system had discriminated against its gifted Latino students by placing them in a program separate from white peers. The judge also ruled that the policies in place to identify gifted students had a “disparate impact” on the Latino school population. The lawsuit was spearheaded by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

In this particular case the Latino students who were placed in separate gifted programs had English as a second language, or were bilingual at least. The language barrier appears to be the excuse used by district leaders for separating Latino students from their white counterparts. Is knowledge of the English language a prerequisite for academic success though? As the world becomes less segmented, particularly when it comes to communication, is it fair to separate our student populations based on their native language?

It all makes me wonder if language has become the new source of segregation. Just as the ruling of Brown vs. The Board of Education found that “separate is… unequal” when it comes to skin color – is the same true of language preferences?

I also wonder how much discrimination is masked by the language excuse. It is taboo to demonstrate the belief that a particular race or ethnicity is inferior but there is often an audience for those who believe English is the superior language. In other words, it is okay to discriminate against fellow citizens if a core American value – like a unified language – is the reasoning. This Illinois case is indicative of what might be found in any school district in an area where Latino students are prevalent and it represents a subtle acceptance of racism if it goes against mainstream behavior.

I think that the judge in the Illinois case got it absolutely right. Separating these Latino students when it came to gifted programs was unfair and certainly sent the wrong message to the students at the school. I also think that these underhanded discriminatory practices exist in other subtle ways whether it involves gifted programs, retention and social promotion, or any other subjective decision making in the nation’s K-12 classrooms. Language preference is just a new twist on an old tale of discrimination in our schools and for all students to have equal opportunities, this point needs to be recognized and eliminated.

What do you think? Is language the new form of segregation in K-12 classrooms?

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