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.
     Overall, fewer than 7% of limited-English students are becoming fluent each year.
     Those figures 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.
     "Despite 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."
     California's 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.
     The state's 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.
     But regardless 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.
     How California deals with that challenge affects even children who never set foot in a bilingual classroom.
     Consider how 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.
     Why? Because 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
     The failure of schools to make children fluent in English should not be a surprise. California policy actually works against the transition.
     School districts 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.
     Explaining why 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.
     Los Angeles 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 supply industries.
     In February, 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 Education.
     Promoters filled 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 Southwest."
     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 programs.
     He likened their critics to passengers who critique the operation of a jet--in the process displaying a 'we know best' defiance.
     "I dare 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?
     Opponents of bilingual education point to places like Santa Barbara's Adams Elementary School.
     Half of the students have limited English skills; half receive subsidized meals; and a tiny fraction each year achieve English fluency.
     Latino children 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 mayuscula, 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).
     One kindergartner finishing an art project at her desk interrupted. "Teacher, I don't know how to do this," she said in clear English.
     The response came in Spanish.
     Viscarra was 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.
     Principal Jo 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.
     "It's really 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.
     Seeing that 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.
     Community activist 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 emphasis.
     His prediction 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.
     Thirteen-year-old 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.
     His teacher, Shawn Morrison, who speaks what she calls "rusty" Spanish, happened to notice Joel one day at recess with "that glazed look in his eyes."      She volunteered 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."
     School officials 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.
     But "we're 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.
     California's 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 help.
     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.
     The sink-or-swim 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
     California is 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 Mexican origin.
     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.
     Chinese parents in the San Gabriel Valley want their children to learn Mandarin, sure--on the weekend, in private school.
     In Westminster's 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.
     That yearning 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.
     Bilingual teachers speak almost entirely in English during physical education, art and music classes and certain other times set aside for what is known as "English language development."
     Their youngest 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 for years.
     At Stanford, 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 Colores."

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
     1985: 5,722
     1997: 20,923
     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.