Los Angeles Times

Sunday, October 26, 1997

Bilingual Education: A Squandered Opportunity
For the sake of youngsters, a 3-year limit should be sought

The Los Angeles Times Poll results should not have been surprising: An overwhelming 80% of voters questioned--whites, blacks, Asian Americans and Latinos--said California's schools should teach in English. Yet so politically charged has the debate over bilingual education become that many were astonished that Latinos, like everybody else, want children to acquire English as soon as possible.
     Of course all parents want their children to succeed, and English is the language of success in this country. California public schools have the task of educating 1.38 million students who speak another language. This is nearly 25% of the state's public school enrollment. Successful academic achievement requires every student to master English. That is the ambitious goal of bilingual education.
     The program works best when children who speak a language other than English learn side by side with children who speak English fluently. Each learns in both languages, taught by teachers who are fluent in both. This two-way immersion is the most effective form of bilingual instruction, but it is the least common because of a shortage of bilingual teachers and the difficulty of establishing a balance between English-speaking and non-English-speaking students.
     California school districts operate a dozen good two-way programs, among them the Korean-English system at Cahuenga Elementary School near Los Angeles' Koreatown neighborhood. Cahuenga's bilingual third-graders, taking standardized reading tests in English, surpassed the national average score and more than doubled the district's average for English-speaking children. Unfortunately, this approach is the exception.
     The initial classroom experience is significant. When children are taught first in their primary language, they start learning on their first day of school. They can ask the teacher questions. They fit in. They feel welcome--in contrast to the childhood experience of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who says she entered school speaking only Spanish and ended up "losing" three years during her early English-only education. Molina and millions like her suffered through the old sink-or-swim method before Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 guaranteed equal access to public education for language minorities.

Hodgepodge Approach Is a Trap
     Most researchers agree that children who begin their studies in a language they understand can transfer their scholastic skills to their new language. Well-planned and implemented bilingual education programs work. But the hodgepodge of approaches in California trap too many children far too long in classes taught in their primary language, mostly Spanish, before they move into mainstream English-only classes. They trickle out of bilingual programs at a disappointing rate of 7% a year. Many stay seven years in bilingual classrooms, far too long. Five years, the current target in the Los Angeles Unified School District for moving students to English-only, is also too long.
     Ruben Zacarias, the bilingual superintendent of the LAUSD, has said that three years should be the goal for transfers. We agree.
     This issue cannot be fully understood without mention of the impetus for the intensifying debate--the proposed "English for the Children" initiative, intended for the June 1998 ballot. This measure--not yet qualified for the ballot--would dismantle current bilingual programs in the schools and permit just one year of intensive, special instruction in English unless parents specifically sought a waiver to place or keep their child in bilingual classes. "English for the Children" is bankrolled by Ron K. Unz, a former Republican gubernatorial hopeful and Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He cites as his motivation last year's Latino parent boycott of the Ninth Street Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles. Parents pulled their children out of bilingual classes for two weeks to make their point: They wanted their sons and daughters taught in English. It is school bureaucrats unwilling to be flexible and the lobbied-'til-it-can't-act Legislature that Unz can thank for the apparent early and strong support for his initiative.
     In the L.A. school district, 93% of children who do not speak English speak Spanish. The remainder speak nearly 100 languages and dialects, including Armenian, Korean, Pilipino, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Russian and Farsi. Supt. Zacarias says he wants children who lack English fluency to be tested in a way that would allow more pupils to start out in English-speaking classes while they are young enough to easily absorb a new language. Research indicates infancy and early childhood are the best time to learn a language. The majority of Latino children speak little or no English when they enter California public schools, usually because no English is spoken in their homes. To address this deficit, Washington or Sacramento should consider creating a new program, modeled on Head Start, that would concentrate on English language development in the preschool years.
     Zacarias says parents constantly complain to him that they can't get their children out of bilingual classes. Under current policy, to move into mainstream classes taught in English, students are required to perform at grade level in English on a standardized test. That hurdle needs rethinking; is the LAUSD demanding grade-level performance from non-English speakers when it routinely promotes English-speaking students not doing grade-level work?
     Bilingual education is big business in California. Nearly $400 million is spent annually on supplemental materials, extra teachers, instructional aides and other resources. The state has allocated $368 million in supplemental funds for poor students this year, and an estimated two-thirds goes to bilingual programs. Washington sent California districts nearly $87.5 million in bilingual funding for fiscal 1997. The LAUSD, meanwhile, allocated $224 extra per limited-English student this year, which provides a strong disincentive to move students through the system at anything other than a snail's pace. To provide an incentive, the LAUSD this year also started paying schools a bonus of $139 for each student who shifts to English-only classes.
     Bilingual teachers, meanwhile, receive up to $5,000 in annual bonuses, and the state's schools still need an estimated 20,000 more. About 13,600 are currently in the classroom, teaching only about 30% of the students eligible for instruction in their primary language.
     The teacher shortage is leading to much-needed experimentation. The nation is watching two experiments in Orange County. Westminster, under a temporary state waiver, teaches Spanish-speaking and Vietnamese children in English with part-time bilingual teacher's aides. The district must show progress in English to continue to do so. The Orange Unified School District got permission last month from a federal court to drop bilingual education for one year for kindergarten through third grade and is using English immersion techniques with the help of bilingual aides.
     Bilingual education done badly certainly is not all that ails public education. An estimated 80% of limited-English students are poor and face a variety of challenges before they enter the schoolhouse door. The majority of the students in the state's public schools in just the next few years will be Latino students--some poor, many working and middle class who do speak English and resent the assumptions of bilingual education.

Largely a Job for Sacramento
     Bilingual education needs fixing in California. This is a job for Sacramento, which has tried unsuccessfully seven times in the last decade to reform it. This year Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante and others saw a major bilingual reform bill as possibly anti-Latino.
     Long-ago history--bitter memories of a time when children were punished and ridiculed for speaking Spanish at school--and recent history in the form of the reprehensible Proposition 187 have an effect. As a result, political activists understandably are suspicious of anything that could be seen as yet another thinly veiled attack on immigrants. But bilingual education is not meeting the high expectations set for it decades ago.
     Sacramento needs to find a way to make all of California's schoolchildren bilingual, a skill that cannot be overvalued in the smaller world they will inherit. But more years in bilingual education does not mean better education. Bilingual education in order to acquire English fluency should start as soon as possible and last no longer than three years. That's the target in New York state, which also has a large immigrant population.
     We give no comfort to the bigots who want to end bilingual education because they don't like immigrants. We do not embrace the doctrinaire who believe bilingual education is a political tool to pound away at a host of historical sins. We stand with the children who deserve better and whose parents are demanding better.

Lacking English
     The number of limited-English proficient students in California schools has than tripled since 1982. Today, nearly half are in Los Angeles County. L.A. County: 557,640.
     Source: California Department of Education