02/25/2011 02:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Do You Say... Travesty?

Sometimes, I like to say olé. I like the sound of it, the festivity. You can't say olé without feeling a kick. But I don't say it at school. I am careful not to say it at school.

I don't permit Spanish in my classroom. Not because it isn't a lovely language. Or because I don't appreciate the merits of bilingualism. Ninety-nine percent of my students are Hispanic, and they have no idea how to speak or write English.

"I speak Spanglish," says one. "I don't got to know English."

The truth is, they haven't really had to know it. Most of my students live in homogeneous, insular communities in which Norwegian is heard and seen about as frequently as English. Only three or four of them have parents who understand the language of the country they live in -- a little -- even though they have lived in it for years. They don't have to be confused by the American supermarket on the corner; they go to La Fiesta. They don't have to miss out on school district news; they read the friendlier version of the website... "Now, in Spanish!" Woohoo. From the ROTC practice field, chants of "Uno, Dos, Trés, Cuatro," fill the air. Again and again. Really, would it be that difficult to count to "Four"? Doesn't it bother anyone that 13-year-olds have second grade vocabularies? Is it really wise to send our future workforce into the world without the ability to converse?

All I know is, when my grandparents immigrated to Boston years ago, the signs at City Hall were not written in Russian, or Polish. If they wanted to communicate with their kids' teachers, they figured out how. My grandmother became a newspaper columnist.

Certain that one group of students had arrived here from Mexico maybe a year ago, at most, I asked them how the transition has been. After I defined transition, they told me that they had attended public school in Dallas (Dallas, Texas, in the United States of America) since first grade. One of these kids couldn't recognize the word our. Never heard of it.

I presumed, then, that surely, these students were masters at their native tongue. Clearly, they must have enormous facility with their own language. I asked their Spanish teacher.

"Are you kidding?" she said. "They speak it as poorly as they speak English. It's entirely broken."

So, learning English as young teenagers, after years of not learning it (in elementary school, they were allowed to take tests in Spanish, presumably to up the passing rate), is not only excruciating. It is just about impossible. They have no ear. They don't know what sounds odd. They have no sense of structure, no sense of how language works. In addition, they are not challenged to write, or read beyond minimal standards. And, the worst, it is all okay with many of them. Because they have Spanglish, and La Fiesta. And Telemundo TV.

If I could advise the curriculum people in urban school districts around the country, I would tell them to turn their current regimens on their heads. Right over, upside down. In elementary school, I'd split the day in half. Intensive English-only Language Arts in the morning, math in the afternoon, through fifth grade. Any sort of Social Studies, which, in these years, amounts to knowing where you live and who carries the mail, can be taken care of as part of the English program. Science can wait.

When kids can't rely on parents to teach them English, or communities to require that they need it, school is the only place left. School has missed the boat. Next week, seventh graders in Texas will take a standardized writing test. If you complete 22 questions correctly, out of 45, and write an essay that scores a Two out of a possible Four, you pass. For months, I have watched administrators run around, panicked, tallying up who will fail and who will squeak by. They have forced kids into all-day sessions in the auditorium, required them to stay after school to complete "Fix-the-sentence" tests. They have reminded them that they are down to the wire, that they've heard about adjectives for months, that they better listen or they will be sent to the Principal's office. Still, most don't realize that is is a verb.

So, the public school system teaches kids nothing for seven years, then punishes them for not knowing anything, because not knowing anything makes the system look bad. It deserves to look bad.