Los Angeles Times
Monday, May 18, 1998
Bilingual Classes a Knotty Issue
Dispute: Schools at opposite poles in the debate show that neither
the bilingual approach nor English-only instruction is succeeding very
well in moving students into English fluency.
By NICK ANDERSON, AMY
PYLE, Times Staff Writers
The idea took hold just as a new wave of immigration was taking off.
Experts proposed, activists insisted, politicians consented: Children who
spoke little or no English could be taught in Spanish, Chinese or whatever
tongue they had learned at home, and at the same time become fluent in
America's dominant language.
But almost a
quarter century after California began its experiment in bilingual education,
tens of thousands of schoolchildren, tagged by the system as "limited
English proficient," are languishing for years without mastering the
language they need for a chance at a well-paying job or a college degree.
Last year, more
than 5,800 schools statewide had at least 20 students with limited English
skills. Of those schools, 1,150 did not move a single student into English
fluency, according to a Times analysis of state records.
For more than
half of those schools, it was the second year in a row of complete futility.
than 7% of limited-English students are becoming fluent each year.
might sound like an indictment of bilingual education--an umbrella term
for an array of programs that teach children in two languages, often with
long spans solely in their native language.
The truth, however,
is that one-third of the schools that failed last year to move any students
into English fluency were teaching only in English. And many of the rest
teach mostly in English.
relatively substantial efforts in a wide variety of places to wrestle with
this problem, we don't know how to solve it," said Douglas E. Mitchell,
an education professor at UC Riverside who heads a research cooperative
of 28 school districts. "This is a huge problem. The system is swamped.
. . . People have strong beliefs about what should work, but they don't
have strong evidence on what does work."
response to the enormous wave of immigration of the last two decades has
polarized the public schools.
At one extreme
are campuses with entrenched dual-language programs. Here, many students
wind up in bilingual classes even if they speak a fair amount of English
and were born in the United States. And often they are placed there without
much discussion with parents and, in a few cases, despite parents' objections.
At the other
pole are the many school districts offering little help to those struggling
to learn English. Some students are left to sink or swim, much as earlier
immigrants did in an era when most of the foreign-born were expected to
take a job before they finished high school.
lack of success in making all its children fluent in English has generated
a bitter public debate, which now focuses on an initiative appearing on
the June ballot that would eliminate most bilingual programs.
of what policy the voters choose, the challenge is only going to get tougher.
The number of
students in the state who are not fluent in English soared from 520,000
in 1985 to 1.4 million in 1997, or one quarter of the public school enrollment.
Half are in Los Angeles and Orange counties and many are in deep poverty,
making them hard to educate under the best of circumstances.
To put the numbers
in perspective, California's population of limited-English students exceeds
the total public school population of at least 38 states.
deals with that challenge affects even children who never set foot in a
would-be teachers were being trained recently in a "methods"
class at Cal State Long Beach. The exercise explored how students might
create "me" books, mini-autobiographies.
Many of the
teachers-in-training came up with elaborate posters, some with no words
at all. They were praised for seeking such a "total physical response,"
meaning that students would mostly cut, color and paste.
the teachers-to-be will probably wind up in classrooms with a large number
of students not fluent in English. So they were encouraged to find ways
to avoid writing, instead of emphasizing it.
State Policy Works Against Fluency
of schools to make children fluent in English should not be a surprise.
California policy actually works against the transition.
receive extra state aid based in part on their count of students with limited
English. And they face no penalty if those students fail to advance.
many schools statewide year after year fail to move any students into English
fluency, Lois Tinson, president of the California Teachers Assn., said:
"School districts see the bucks coming in."
Indeed, an extensive
bureaucracy has sunk roots in California's school system since the state's
first major bilingual education law was enacted in 1976.
schools pay bilingual teachers as much as $5,000 extra per year, reflecting
the scarce supply of qualified specialists. Statewide, school districts
also employ thousands of bilingual teaching assistants, bilingual school
coordinators and other staff to track limited-English students, administer
English proficiency tests, apply for grants and do the thousand and one
tasks required in programs monitored by federal and state governments.
Then there are
thousands of teachers and advocates traveled to San Jose by bus, plane
and car from all points of the state to attend seminars on pedagogy and
political survival at the convention of the California Assn. for Bilingual
an exhibit hall with new bilingual textbooks, computer software, handicrafts
from Mexico and Central America, videotapes, testing materials and such
storybooks as "Los Tres Cerdos," described in one brochure as
a "nonviolent version of 'The Three Pigs' that takes place in the
At a rally attended
by more than 1,000 educators, Santiago Wood, superintendent of Alum Rock
School District in San Jose, exhorted listeners to defend their bilingual
He likened their
critics to passengers who critique the operation of a jet--in the process
displaying a 'we know best' defiance.
any of us who have flown in an airplane to try to tell a pilot how to fly
that plane," Wood said. "This is my business. This is my field."
Bilingual Approach Run Amok?
bilingual education point to places like Santa Barbara's Adams Elementary
Half of the
students have limited English skills; half receive subsidized meals; and
a tiny fraction each year achieve English fluency.
in Santa Barbara have for years been routinely placed in bilingual classes
even though 90% were born in this country, most right at the city's Cottage
Hospital. In Adams' kindergarten class this year, only two of the children
with limited English skills were born outside the United States.
In her bright,
airy bilingual kindergarten classroom, Sela Viscarra was teaching upper-
and lowercase letters.
d minuscula," chanted the children surrounding her feet. N was the
letter of the day, so it got special treatment, with the chant leading
to flash cards of N-words for which no English translation was provided,
though they all began with N in English as well--numeros (numbers), nariz
(nose), nido (nest), nueces (nuts).
finishing an art project at her desk interrupted. "Teacher, I don't
know how to do this," she said in clear English.
came in Spanish.
not being stubborn; she was adhering to the educational theory that switching
from one language to the other confuses students. She would teach in English
on other days, but this day's plan called for Spanish.
Ann Caines has pushed her teachers to give more English to their students.
She used to
work in a middle school, after all, and saw how the kids faltered there
without adequate English skills. They were a long way from being ready
for Advanced Placement courses.
obvious that they need full exposure to English for three years before
middle school in order to get there," she concluded.
But the district
is planning more drastic changes. During sometimes-bitter meetings over
the past year, school board members reviewed the results of bilingual education--and
found extensive evidence that it was not working.
Last year, for
example, Adams fifth-graders--when tested in English--scored at the 12th
percentile nationally in reading, at the 17th in math.
Even when tested
in Spanish, children in the bilingual program districtwide were performing
far below grade level.
And worst of
all was how graduates of the bilingual program performed when they reached
high school: abysmally.
This was most
distressing, because long-term prowess is the strongest claim of bilingual
program supporters. The idea is that a solid academic base in another language
seamlessly translates by high school into a solid academic base in English.
didn't happen, Santa Barbara school officials decided in January to do
away with the bilingual program. Entirely. As of September.
They did promise
extra support to limited-English speakers, both in Spanish and English,
plus an English summer school. But typical of how the debate has become
so heated, the proposal set off a parent boycott--for bilingual education.
Ruben Rey, who is married to a bilingual teacher, mocked the other side
for doing away with the program. "Quicker! Quicker! Get these kids
into English quicker!" he snarled, snapping his fingers for sarcastic
for the English-only approach: "It's doomed to failure."
Flailing in a Sea of English
For every Santa
Barbara, which opponents consider an example of bilingual education run
amok, there is a Lone Pine.
In this community
of 2,100 in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, there are no bilingual classes at
the elementary school and few instructors qualified to teach English as
a second language.
There is no
shortage, however, of Spanish-speaking newcomers who need help at Lo-Inyo
Elementary--children of factory workers, motel maids and others who are
turning the demographics of this rural area upside down.
Joel Murillo, a new arrival from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, toils
in the afternoons over an English grammar book, surrounded by fifth-graders
speaking a language he barely comprehends.
Shawn Morrison, who speaks what she calls "rusty" Spanish, happened
to notice Joel one day at recess with "that glazed look in his eyes."
to tutor him in English when she could.
But that does
not amount to much. "Twenty minutes a day," she said.
The tutoring has helped--a bilingual teacher from a nearby high school
pitches in--but Joel confesses, in Spanish, that the school feels "strange"
to him "because there's no one I can talk with here."
in Lone Pine, 200 miles north of Los Angeles on U.S. 395, between the High
Sierra and Death Valley, say they are trying their best, and improving.
isolated. We don't have the budget to hire specialists," said Nancy
Prather, who teaches reading and computer skills at the school.
From 1992 to
1997, state records show, Lo-Inyo Elementary did not move one student into
English fluency, even as its population of limited-English children swelled
from 10 to 33. There are now 42, out of a total enrollment of 284 from
kindergarten through eighth grade.
schools, particularly in rural districts, have lots of students who are
left to learn English almost entirely on their own.
Lone Pine is
far from the worst. Its students, like Joel, are at least getting some
More than 220,000
limited-English students in California last year got none at all. A chronic
teacher shortage is largely to blame.
As of 1997,
California had about one bilingual teacher for every 92 limited-English
students. Most of those teachers were Spanish-speaking, not surprisingly,
reflecting the dominant position of Latinos among the state's ethnic minorities
and the historic importance of bilingual education in Latino politics.
But even for
Spanish speakers, the state has just one bilingual teacher for every 77
limited-English students. In other languages, the shortage grows to ridiculous
proportions. For Vietnamese speakers, the ratio is 535 to 1. For the 20,000
limited-English students who speak Khmer--the language of Cambodia--there
are only five certified Khmer-English teachers--a ratio of 4,000 to 1.
approach has a long history in American schools.
Nostalgics often claim that the approach succeeded in moving immigrants
into the mainstream.
Too often, however,
immigrant students never graduated from high school, and others obtained
only a rudimentary grasp of English. After years of controversy in a period
of growing awareness of immigrant rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
in 1974 that schools have a duty to offer students with limited English
some form of help.
It might surprise
the conservative opponents of bilingual education today to learn that mandatory
English-only instruction already had been ended in California by then--under
Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Emotional Topic in California
hardly alone in grappling with growing numbers of students not fluent in
English. But you won't see the same emotion in Miami, say, as in Santa
Barbara: Bilingual education has been sold there as making economic sense
for all children. To work in a bilingual world, the logic goes, you need
to be bilingual.
The issue raises
such passions in California because it is part of a bigger debate over
the status of immigrants in the late 20th century, especially those of
It starts with
California having once belonged to Mexico, as activists readily note. And
the Latino civil rights movement in California early on married the issues
of societal discrimination with English-only instruction in schools. Now
attacks on bilingual education are seen as the latest affront: Let them
do your menial labor; don't let them speak their language.
For the most
part, other immigrant groups have not seized on bilingual education as
a civil rights cause.
At Third Street
Elementary School in Los Angeles, Principal Susie Oh would not dare to
impose classes taught in Korean on her students--their parents simply would
not hear of it.
in the San Gabriel Valley want their children to learn Mandarin, sure--on
the weekend, in private school.
Vietnamese community, you hear about immigrants such as Tony Lam, now 62,
who brought six children with him in 1975, none speaking English, yet all
graduated from colleges here--without any bilingual education.
And as one survey
after another has shown, Latinos are hardly of one mind: Among those registered
to vote, a recent Times poll found, 50% supported the ballot measure to
end most bilingual education. Only 32% of Latino voters opposed the initiative,
which would place children with limited English skills into mainstream
classes after about one year of special English-language instruction.
The bottom line
is that most immigrant parents simply want their children to learn English.
Still, Ana M.
"Cha" Guzman, who recently chaired a White House commission on
Latino education, argues that there is something different at play among
Latinos. Although immigrants from all parts of the world arrive here to
become Americans "all the way through," Latino immigrants--who
often come from areas closer to the United States--feel more need "to
keep in touch with our roots," she says.
can be seen at Stanford Avenue Elementary, an outpost of the Los Angeles
school system in South Gate. Four out of five students at the school have
limited English skills.
They seem caught
between two worlds.
speak almost entirely in English during physical education, art and music
classes and certain other times set aside for what is known as "English
students get a heavy diet of Spanish in most core subjects. But few students
of any age in this school perform at grade level on basic skills tests.
English transition rates have been below the state's own mediocre average
even the Pledge of Allegiance is an exercise in bilingual education as
a thousand students show one spring morning on the sunlit blacktop. Two
classmates lead the group in English and Spanish, concluding, "una
nacion, bajo Dios, con libertad y justicia para todos."
Then the Stars
and Stripes is put away. Red paper flags emblazoned with the black Aztec
eagle of the United Farm Workers emerge. A teacher sings a ballad to mark
the birthday of the late Mexican American union leader Cesar Chavez, and
students join in a round of what was said to be his favorite song, "De
The Impact of Immigration
The number of
California students who cannot speak fluent English greatly outstripped
the supply of bilingual teachers starting in the late 1980s. The state
now has only one bilingual teacher for every 92 students with limited English
skills. The ratio is 1-77 for Spanish and far higher for Asian languages,
1-535 for Vietnamese, for example.
Estimated shortage of bilingual teachers, 1985-97
The 1997 bilingual
teacher shortage may actually have been as much as 26,923 because of the
effects of a program in kindergarten through third grade that increased
the need by an estimated additional 6,000 teachers.