Wednesday, October 29, 1997
Bilingual Education Opponents Aren't Telling the Truth
By JOAN BACA
This letter is in response to the number of recent articles appearing
in the Leader related to the failure of bilingual education.
More importantly, it is meant to bring to
the attention of readers the previously unpublicized and unacknowledged
fact that there are bilingual programs that are highly effective in meeting
both the academic and linguistic needs of our Spanish-speaking children.
It is also important that the public be informed that English Language
Immersion Programs can and will not accomplish the high level of English
proficiency being advocated by the opponents of bilingual education.
I have been an educator for 30 years as an
English immersion classroom teacher for grades two through six, an English-as-a-second-language
resource teacher and a principal in a traditional bilingual and primary
language school for the past 14 years. Because of my varied educational
experiences, I feel highly qualified to address these politically motivated
issues, as well as the attributes of the bilingual program and the limitations
of the English Immersion Program.
An outstanding bilingual program has been
in effect since 1991 at George Washington Elementary School, a California
Distinguished School in Burbank and a recent recipient of the California
Golden Bell Award for its English Language Acquisition Program. I invite
Ron Unz and any other opponents of bilingual education to visit our school.
Here they will see first-hand why this important
program is so successful. They will also see how it is producing literate
English-speaking students using Spanish, the child's primary language,
as a basis for instruction in order to build a solid foundation for learning
No one involved in bilingual education would
deny the fact that the primary goal for every child is to learn English,
although Mr. Unz and his supporters would lead you, the public, to believe
otherwise. However, the most compelling challenge is how to help a child
achieve literacy in English, which is much more than just speaking English
in order to become a truly productive citizen.
This will not happen for most children after
only one year in an oral English Immersion Program. Remember, prior to
beginning school, English-speaking children have five to six years to practice
speaking English, and only then are they ready to learn to read in their
first language. How can we expect Spanish-speaking children to perform
differently with only one year of English instruction?
Let me explain why English Immersion Programs
will and did not work. When children come to school with limited discourse
and experiences in their preschool years, they do not have a strong foundation
for building a second language. While they learn to speak English, one
to two years of cognitive learning is lost.
Then, just as before the inception of bilingual
education, most of these children will find themselves relegated to low-ability
groups and unable to achieve academically. Only those students who come
with a strong foundation in their first language or who are gifted will
find themselves succeeding.
The question then has to be asked: Is this
English-only campaign a way to deceive Latino parents into believing that
English-only classes will be their child's ticket to success, or is it
really a way to withhold the opportunity for their children to become truly
literate in English? These are issues that must be addressed if the public
is to be fully aware of the intent of this politically motivated English-only
It is also important to acknowledge that
not all bilingual programs have been successful, just as many English-speaking
programs are not effective.
What makes this program at Washington effective
and others less successful? The following comprise the critical components
of Washington's program and are necessary in order for Spanish-speaking
children to achieve literacy in English. First, the program must be staffed
by credentialed teachers who are fluent in Spanish, not by teaching assistants.
Second, access to the core curriculum must
be in the child's primary language as a foundation for cognitive learning.
Third, oral English language development must be taught daily, and the
class needs to be teamed with an English-only class to provide for natural
Last, transition to English-only classes
needs to occur only at the end of third grade or the beginning of fourth
grade, so that a strong foundation of skills are developed in the primary
language, which can then be transferred successfully into English. In addition,
and most importantly, Latino parents are, then, able to support their children
academically at home and are not left out of their child's educational
The program at Washington incorporates all
of these elements, and, because of them, has been highly successful. This
is validated by the fact that all students in grades four and five have
transitioned into a total English instructional program. The number of
these students receiving Presidential Excellence and Improvement Awards
based on grades and performance has been significant and personally rewarding.
Our Spanish-speaking students deserve a greater
opportunity to become literate, not just orally proficient, as the English
Immersion proponents would have us believe. The public and Latino parents
cannot be deceived with the pretense that an English-only program will
open the doors to literacy for these children, when, in effect, for most
it may well close them forever. Let us not cripple them in two languages
and destroy their self-esteem at the same time.
Again, come to Washington School, and see
how an exemplary bilingual program is producing English-literate students,
proud of who they are and what they can do cognitively and linguistically
in their second language ~ English.
JOAN BACA is principal of George Washington Elementary School in Burbank.