Poor English Skills Cost Latinos $38 Billion in Missed Wages Annually

by Christopher Paslay

More needs to be done to break Latinos from the vicious cycle of linguistic isolation.

Remember the late great Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s Steaks,  and his infamous Speak English sign?  Well, a newly released study from the Lexington Institute shows that the inability to speak proper English is keeping Latinos from more than just South Philly Cheesesteaks:

Spanish-speaking Americans with poor English skills miss out on $38 billion in earnings each year, according to a new study by the Lexington Institute.

“The latest Census results show that we are seeing poor English skills passing down from one generation to the next, with Spanish speakers paying the heaviest price in economic terms,” said Don Soifer, Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute and one of the authors of the study, The Value of English Proficiency to the United States Economy. “We need to do better at breaking these cycles of linguistic isolation.”

On average, each adult with poor English skills earns $3,000 per year less than he would have earned as a proficient English speaker. By comparison, the wage penalty facing Latinos who do not earn a high school diploma is $4,700.

The population of English learners in the United States has grown substantially in recent decades, to over 25 million, according to the 2010 Census. More than five million of these English learners are currently attending U.S. elementary and secondary schools. Only one in four is foreign-born — the rest are second- or third-generation Americans.

“When it comes to closing the language gap between English learners and other students, we are seeing widely varying results nationally, with small gains,” Soifer noted.

The report, The Value of English Proficiency to the United States Economy, is available online here.

States With Large English Learner Populations, 2010


LEP Population Percent Share





New York


New Jersey













Source: 2010 American Community Survey, Table B16001, “Language Spoken at Home by Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over”

Which Students Deserve Amnesty? Only Obama Gets to Decide

by Christopher Paslay

Obama himself–not Congress or the people–will decide which students should be held responsible for the crimes of their parents.   

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave.  It has also been home to slave masters, segregationists, and illegal aliens who’ve crossed the border or over-stayed their visas.  These sinners and rule breakers have given birth to children–some in the United States, some on foreign soil.  Many of these children are now students in American schools.  Which should be granted amnesty and which deserve a penalty?

This is a decision best left up to the president–at least in the mind of Barack Obama.

Let’s start with granting amnesty to America’s undocumented residents. President Obama’s recent executive decision to override Congress and implement parts of the DREAM Act–granting immunity to an estimated 800,000 illegal aliens residing in the United States–is a case of the president deciding that certain students should not be held responsible for the crimes of their parents.  In other words, youths brought to America illegally by their parents shouldn’t be forced to leave the country.

President Obama stated this in his June 15th speech on immigration policy:

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life, studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class, only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

That’s what gave rise to the DREAM Act. It says that if your parents brought you here as a child, you’ve been here for five years and you’re willing to go to college or serve in our military, you can one day earn your citizenship. . . .

(The DREAM Act does make a lot of sense and has received some bipartisan support . . . a version of it was actually introduced by George W. Bush . . . unless of course you are one of the thousands of legal immigrants following the law and patiently waiting your turn to become a citizen.)

On the other hand, President Obama’s support of Affirmative Action–a policy that uses skin color to decide which students get into which schools and receive preferential treatment–is a case of the president deciding that certain students should be held responsible for their ancestors’ past crimes.

Jason Kissner, associate professor of Criminology at California State University, Fresno, said it best:

Why should today’s White youth be held accountable, via affirmative action measures, for Jim Crow laws?  Why should they be accountable, via affirmative action measures, for the enslavement perpetrated not by their parents but by people who acted several generations ago?

How about today’s Asian youth?  Why on God’s green earth are they forced to limp around with the lead ball of affirmative action lashed to their ankles?

And what, exactly, is the justification for extending affirmative action to Hispanics anyway?

Also, has anyone inquired whether the beneficiaries of Mr. Obama’s immigration pronouncement are now lawfully entitled (which, given Mr. Obama’s proclivities, is admittedly not the same as asking whether they will in fact receive) dispensations such as affirmative action small business loans?

Can anyone at all explain how it makes sense to distribute government benefits, on the basis of “innocence,” to those whom all parties admit are unlawfully here and then discriminate–in spite of innocence–against those whom all parties must admit are lawfully here?

The most interesting part of this all is that President Obama himself–not Congress, not the people–gets to decide who gets amnesty and who gets a penalty.  Despite the fact that Congress shot down the DREAM Act, the president recently used an executive order to implement portions of it anyway.  Many Americans believe that this was an overreach of presidential power.  In fact, President Obama thought so himself.

In March of 2011, the president clearly stated that he could not stop deportations of undocumented students through an executive order when he addressed a town hall forum hosted by the spanish speaking network Univision.

With respect to the notion that I could suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed and I know that everybody here at Bell is studying hard so you know we have three branches of government. Congresses passes the law. The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws and then the judiciary has to interpret the law. There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system, that for me through simply an executive order ignore those mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president.

Last month, the president ignored his own best judgement, overrode Congress and gave amnesty to nearly one million unlawful aliens anyway.

As for the hard working American students being penalized for their ancestor’s sins via affirmative action?  The president has offered no such amnesty to these children.

Apparently, these students and their parents will have to hope that President Obama wakes up on the right side of the bed one day and changes his mind.

Readers respond to ‘School reform’s alphabet’

by Christopher Paslay

My most recent Philadelphia Inquirer commentary, “School reform’s alphabet,” has generated some interesting feedback from readers. 


The day after I published the article I received an email from a New York City public school teacher.  In it he wrote,


On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised to read your article regarding “accommodations” in The Philadelphia Inquirer. This surprise comes from the fact that as a teacher in NYC, I have yet to read any editorials in the New York Times that are from a teacher’s perspective. Even more importantly, but less surprising, is that most editorials vilify teachers, holding them accountable for all society’s woes.
Having written numerous letters to the New York Times, I only wish we had a voice in our city press as you appear to have in yours—maybe I should move to Philly.
Keep up the good work.



I’d like to take this time to officially thank V. C. for writing.

The responses weren’t all positive, of course.  Kelly Darr of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and Len Rieser of the Education Law Center teamed up and wrote a letter to the Inquirer which came to the defense of English language learners and children with disabilities.  The two explained that such groups have a federal right to accommodations. 


The only problem is my article never said English language learners and the disabled shouldn’t receive extra help.  I simply pointed out public education’s double standard and suggested that accountability shouldn’t stop with school teachers.


I must have really ruffled Len Rieser’s feathers because he also used his column at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook to blog about my article.  His post, headlined “Why can’t they just teach their kids English” repeated the points he made in his letter to the Inquirer: that English language learners have a right to accommodations.  Again, although I insinuated that parents of immigrants should shoulder some of the language burden, nowhere in my commentary did I call for their services to be taken away.


Len also took issue with my comment about the Philadelphia School District spending large amounts of money on special teachers for children of immigrants.  I wrote,


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.   


Obviously, when you read my statements in the context of the whole article, it’s clear I meant the district has allocated big bucks on ELL services as a whole.  Yet somehow Len got hung up on the word “him” and said:


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.     


This misinterpretation is the result of one of two things: One—Len must have been burning the midnight oil when he wrote his blog and as a result his thinking was a little bit fuzzy; or two—Len purposely twisted my words in the grand tradition of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. 


Either way I’d like to say thanks—I’m flattered by the attention.  Oh, and on a side note: 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.


Shakespeare and the Constructivist Learning Theory




 by Christopher Paslay


I’m currently working on a Masters in Multicultural Education at Eastern University.  This summer I just finished taking a course on teaching English as a second language.  As a culminating project for the class, we were required to pick a strategy or an idea that stood out during the six week seminar, and highlight it by writing an essay, song, poem, PowerPoint, etc.  It was an open genre assignment, with no minimum or maximum page limit.


I chose to write a Shakespearean sonnet on the Constructivist Learning Theory.  This philosophy teaches that learners construct knowledge for themselves—each learner individually constructs meaning as he or she learns.  In other words, teachers do not overwhelm students with a lot of facts and information, but rather act as a guide, allowing students to make connections and build knowledge on their own.    


Here is my sonnet, a bit clumsy at times, but adhering to Shakespeare’s strict form nonetheless:


The Constructivist


Shall I compare thee to a bank teller?

Depositing useless facts into a night slot;

Treating students like a cave-dweller,

Force feeding their brain a lot of rot.

Information must be relevant and true,

In context, meaningful, and connected;

Tying together the old with the new,

Making sure all cultures are respected.

Teachers should focus on critical thinking,

Allowing students to learn on their own;

Using past experiences while linking,

New facts to ones already known.

Constructivists make students active learners,

And help them become money-earners.


Thanks for reading. 


The Notebook responds to Chalk and Talk article




by Christopher Paslay


On March 3rd, I posted an article here on Chalk and Talk headlined Do Phila. teachers really view minority children as criminals?  In the article I criticized the Philadelphia Public School Notebook for running an objectionable editorial (Changing the odds) that suggested Philadelphia public school teachers were racist and afraid of the communities they serve.


Two days later I received an email from Paul Socolar, editor of the Notebook, requesting that we open a dialogue in order to address some of the issues I had with his newspaper.  Paul also asked me to reread my March 3rd article, and to pay careful attention to its tone, which Paul felt had degenerated into name calling; he took particular offense to the fact that I called the Notebook “irresponsible”. 


I reread the post, and although I didn’t feel I had called anyone names, I did agree that it had an edge to it.  I explained that this was a reaction to the accusations contained in the Notebook’s Winter 2008 edition, Focus on Changing the Odds, where the newspaper more than once alluded to the fact that teachers were racist. 


Paul admitted that I wasn’t the only teacher who felt this way.  However, he suggested that I focus on the actual points of disagreement, rather than throwing around so many labels.  In order for both of us to tone down our rhetoric, he wanted to know what other editions of the Notebook may have offended me. 


As I went through the Notebook’s archives, I realized that these articles were not so much offensive to teachers as they were unfriendly.  Here were the gripes I had:            


Lack of Parental Involvement:  The Notebook fails to scrutinize parents and explore all the ways mothers and fathers are failing their children.  They suggest parental involvement is low because schools aren’t “welcoming”; teachers are “intimidating”; announcements aren’t made early and often enough; literature isn’t translated into other languages; etc.     


The achievement gap: The Notebook fails to explore the societal root of the problem, and refuses to acknowledge that many black children are plagued by serious social ills.  They place much of the blame on racist teachers.    


Safety issues:  The Notebook fails to admit Philadelphia neighborhoods are sometimes dangerous and that violent crime exists.  They chastise teachers for not wanting to teach in the poorest schools because they harbor unfounded prejudices and are “afraid of the communities they serve”.  


Inappropriate student behavior: The Notebook fails to acknowledge the violent and unruly actions of too many children (many of them minorities).  They often explain these behaviors away and blame them on the teacher’s unconscious racial prejudice or the counselor’s wrongful diagnosis. 


English language learners:  The Notebook fails to recommend ways immigrant families can shoulder some of the language burden.  Instead, they call under-resourced and overwhelmed schools and teachers “unwelcoming” and demand better services.


The Voice of Teachers:  The Notebook rarely incorporates into their articles publications that represent the voice of classroom teachers.  Instead, they consistently quote studies and statistics from civil rights organizations that tend to paint schools and teachers in an unflattering light.    


Philadelphia Student Union: The Notebook fails to emphasize the fact that the Philadelphia Student Union must strive to hold its peers accountable for contributing to the chaotic nature of schools.  Instead, they consistently harp on the fact that parents and students “feel disrespected by teachers”.           


Writers and Bloggers:  The Notebook does not have a single writer or blogger that is a current Philadelphia public school teacher.


After reading my concerns, Paul admitted that teachers do need a stronger voice in his newspaper, and he insisted that he is working on this situation.  He also explained that the Notebook’s mission is to make schools better, and that their focus isn’t necessarily on the other parts of the education equation—parents, communities, or the students themselves; Paul did admit however that the problems schools face cannot be solved in isolation.


In addition, Paul stated that he wouldn’t mind having a public discussion on the Notebook’s blog about most of the issues I listed above.  I may take him up on this offer.  For now, I’m posting these concerns here on Chalk and Talk, and I’m asking people on all sides of the argument for constructive feedback. 


One final note: I’d like to thank Paul Socolar for engaging in our email dialogue, and for taking my concerns to heart.  And I’d also like to reiterate my pledge to watch the tone of my posts, as long as the Notebook strives to be more teacher-friendly.     


Joey Vento, multicultural ideology, and the ‘speak English’ sign

 by Christopher Paslay

 This is America.  When ordering, speak English.” 


By now we know the story.  Joey Vento, owner of the famous Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia, placed a small sign in the window of his restaurant asking customers to order in English.  Although the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations filed a discrimination complaint against Geno’s (which the commission eventually lost), Vento said the sign was never meant to be offensive. 


“This country is a melting pot, but what makes it work is the English language,” Vento told members of the commission. 


How we react to this “speak English” sign says a lot about who we are and what we believe in.  Those who find it offensive are probably cultural pluralists.  Those who agree with its message are most likely assimilationists.           


If you’re not familiar with these concepts, allow me to elaborate on their meanings. 


According to James A. Banks, author of Cultural Diversity and Education, “It is extremely important, argues the pluralist, for individuals to develop a commitment to their culture and ethnic group, especially if that group is oppressed by more powerful groups within society.  The energies and skills of each member of a culture or ethnic group has a moral obligation to join the liberation struggle.” 


In other words, you should not only be permitted to speak in your native tongue, but you should do it with pride, and resist anyone or anything that tells you otherwise.


Assimilationists, on the other hand, “believe that strong ethnic attachments are dysfunctional in a modernized civic community.  The assimilationist sees integration as a societal goal in a modernized state, not ethnic segregation or separation.  The assimilationist thinks that the best way to promote the goals of society and to develop commitments to democratic ideals is to promote the full socialization of all individuals and groups into the shared national civic culture.”        


In other words, This is America.  When ordering, speak English. 


In 2009, the debate between cultural pluralism and assimilation isn’t limited to chessesteak shops in South Philly.  America’s schools are jumping into the fray as well.  Educational policy makers and those interested in school reform are battling over ideas and curriculum in regards to multicultural education.  And like the heated debate over Vento’s sign, each camp has a set agenda and interprets research very differently.


When it comes to education, the pluralist believes that the cultures of ethnic groups are not deviant or deficient in any way, but are well ordered and highly structured—although different from the dominant culture.   To quote Banks, “Pluralists believe that curriculum should be revised to reflect the cognitive styles, cultural history, and experiences of cultural groups, especially students of color.”


Educational assimilationists believe that learning characteristics are universal across cultures, and that the socialization practices of the dominant culture enhances learning, while the socialization styles of ethnic groups hold their members back from succeeding in school.  To quote Banks, “Emphasis should be on the shared culture within the nation-state because all citizens must learn to participate in a civic culture that requires universal skills and competencies.”            




Both cultural pluralist and assimilationist concepts have their drawbacks.  The pluralist theory is lacking because it often fails to prepare students to cope adequately with the real world beyond their ethnic or cultural community.  And because learning characteristics are not always universalistic, but to some extent, cultural-specific, the assimilationist theory is not completely foolproof. 


The answer to curriculum reform is what Banks calls multicultural ideology.  Banks states, “Educational policy can best be guided by an eclectic ideology that reflects both the cultural pluralist position and the assimilation position, but avoids their extremes.”


In other words, we need educational policies that promote social cohesion and a minimum of mainstream socialization, but at the same time, take into consideration a student’s learning style based on his or her culture or ethnic background. 


Parents of Immigrant Children Must Help Shoulder Language Burden

by Christopher Paslay


Last Sunday, 200 parents of non-English speaking families gathered in a South Philadelphia church to complain to district officials that they wanted more bilingual accommodations in schools. 


Although I’m a committed educator, I admit I feel a pang of anger when I hear parents of immigrant children complaining about the lack of language services.  It’s not that I don’t want foreign born children to get a quality education, it’s just that their parent’s attitude of entitlement is a bit frustrating.


It’s almost as if their status as immigrants gives them a free pass: They’re held accountable to a different standard because the school district is mandated by law to accommodate a foreign born student’s every linguistic whim. 


The tragic part is, the Philadelphia School District’s promise to provide bilingual services to all immigrant families is completely unrealistic.  According to research complied by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, there are currently over 12,000 foreign born students in city schools who speak over 50 languages. 


Further data shows that only 11 percent of these children will ever reach the level of proficiency in English and successfully exit district ESOL programs.


The Philadelphia School District’s resources are just too limited to accommodate every immigrant with a language deficiency.  The burden of teaching English to foreign born children must not rest solely with city schools—it must be shared by everyone in the community—social service agencies, churches, and by the parents of the children themselves. 


For non-English speaking families to stand idly by and wait for public schools to kowtow to their every need is foolish and irresponsible.  Parents of foreign born children must help shoulder the burden and not only learn English themselves, but pass the language on to their children at an early age.

Why Philly Kids Can’t Read

by Christopher Paslay


Although the Philadelphia School District’s 2008 PSSA reading scores have improved for the sixth straight year, only 45.9% of students can read at a proficient level.  As a high school English teacher, here’s what I believe the district must do to ensure that 100% of our students are reading on grade level.


Cut class sizes.  To keep the teacher-to-student ratio low, there should be no more than 27 students in a class (let’s get serious; it should be no more than 15).  This way, teachers could give the students the one-on-one attention needed to help them get through challenging assignments.


Track students by ability level, to keep slower students from falling behind, and more advanced students from being held back.  This way, teachers could use one text for the whole class, and analyze it much more thoroughly.


Place a reading specialist in every class.  This would further improve the teacher-to-student ratio, and provide a valuable resource for reading strategies. 


Encourage students to practice reading at home, and implement the reading strategies they learn in the classroom.  To make this work, teachers would need the help of parents.  Moms and dads need to be there to help students work through difficult text during homework assignments, and to help with reading comprehension.


Unfortunately, city schools don’t operate in this kind of learning environment.  Here’s how things work in the Philadelphia School District:


Class sizes are not manageable.  When you squeeze 33 students in a room, there isn’t enough time to give each student the one-on-one attention needed to teach them to read properly.  Class sizes aren’t manageable because the district doesn’t want to spend the money to hire more teachers .    


Classes are heterogeneously grouped.  This means you have kids in a class who are on different reading levels.  Some are on 6th grade levels, some are on 11th grade levels.  Which means when you teach, you have to spend time differentiating instruction (this is a fancy way of saying the teacher must adapt the reading material to ALL ability levels . . . something that is impossible to do).  And you not only have a bunch of students on different reading levels, but you have English Language Learners as well (EELs).  These are foreign born kids who can barely speak English at all.  And then you have inclusion students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  These are students with learning disabilities who are mainstreamed into the class and need even more specialized instruction from the teacher who is trying to teach 32 other students (on different reading levels) to read.  Classes aren’t grouped by ability level because the district doesn’t want to damage the self-esteem of the students.  In other words, it’s better to pretend that kids are smart now, and let them find out the truth the hard way later in the real world.      


You must teach without a reading specialist.  Sorry, the teacher-to-student ratio must stay high.  And no, you can’t have specially trained teachers to help you implement reading strategies.  Again, it’s not in the budget. 


Most kids don’t practice reading at home.  Why? Because education isn’t a priority in the home.  Moms and dads either don’t care, or aren’t there, or can’t read themselves.  So the kids don’t practice reading.  But you can’t hold parents accountable; it’s not politically correct.    


This is the reality of the situation.  Sure, the Philadelphia School District is making progress in reading, but at a snail’s pace.  If the city and the SRC and the various communities of Philadelphia genuinely cared about teaching kids to read, they would cut class sizes, group kids by ability level, hire reading specialists and demand parents get involved with school work. 


Then all students would be able to read. 




Children of Illegals Should be Schooled in Their Own Homes

by Christopher Paslay

During the summer of 1998 I backpacked through seven different European countries: Ireland, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Denmark. One thing that stunned me was that everyone—no matter which town or region—seemed to speak fluent English. Whether I was struggling to order a meal or asking directions to the train, people would drop their first language to accommodate me in my own tongue.

The language situation is much different in the United States. Our mentality is the opposite of Europe’s, and can be summed up in the infamous sign at Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia: When ordering, please speak English.

Americans seem to have a genuine hostility toward those who come to this country and can’t speak English.

The Notebook, an independent newspaper covering Philadelphia public schools, dedicated their fall 2008 edition to the theme of immigration and English Language Learners. In their editorial, “An asset squandered,” The Notebook analyzes Philadelphia’s growing population of immigrants. The conclusion they draw is interesting: immigrants—specifically, English language learners—should be viewed as an asset rather than a liability.

The Notebook’s reasoning is that “today’s English language learners could be the next generation of bilingual teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers, and businesspeople essential to the increasingly global and multicultural economy.” They go on to argue that “this can only happen if they get a good education.”

As an English teacher in a Philadelphia public high school, I understand the importance of children having solid communication skills. Knowing how to read, write and speak proper English is essential to succeeding in school as well as in society. And with an influx of non-English speakers coming to America, our country is going to need well educated bilingual future leaders.

However, I do believe the conclusion drawn in The Notebook’s editorial is a tad idealistic. For starters, they fail to indicate whether the recent waves of immigrants to Philadelphia are legal or illegal. A 2006 survey by the US Census Bureau reports that 6.3% of Philadelphian’s are not U.S. Citizens. I realize that a child is a child, regardless of citizenship, and that all children deserve an education.

But our city’s resources are limited, especially those of the Philadelphia School District. In my opinion, illegals have no right to special language programs, period. In fact, I believe the government needs to do more to keep illegals out of the country all together. Just like I tell my students that there are rules in the classroom that need to be followed to keep order and balance, so are there rules in this country that must be obeyed and respected.

So who is responsible for teaching illegals the English language? The people who brought them here illegally, of course. Parents, grandmothers, aunts or uncles. They must take on the burden of their new venture into America.

The push for more resources for English language learners has a built-in shield for illegal immigrants. This is an issue that must be brought to light.

Of course, the question still remains: What about those children who are here legally? This is a tricky subject as well. In light of my travels outside the United States, I’m more open to accommodating English language learners. However, responsibility for teaching them English must be equally embraced by parents and the community; teachers and schools should not be made the scapegoat for their language deficiencies.

Education does not take place in a vacuum. Parents and the community should take equal responsibility for educating legal English language learners, while illegals should be taught the language in their own homes.