Los Angeles Times
Friday, August 8, 1997
Testing the Limits of Bilingual Education
Schools: Santa Ana teacher leads campaign to make 'English immersion'
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer
SANTA ANA--Gloria Matta Tuchman, poster teacher for the English-first
movement in California, says the performance of her students is the best
argument for ending bilingual education in the state's polyglot public
When visitors come to her class, Matta Tuchman
asks her first-graders to drop what they are doing and read aloud. The
youngsters, most from Spanish-speaking families, oblige with a demonstration
of their budding English skills. The dignitaries come away impressed.
Critics say such scenes offer little proof
for Matta Tuchman's assertion that children from any language background
will advance further and faster if they are taught just in English from
But the veteran Santa Ana teacher, now stumping
for a proposal to dismantle California's bilingual programs, knows that
image matters in this emotional debate.
"I love showing off my classroom. I
want people to actually see what goes on," Matta Tuchman said. "What
I'm saying is true. I have not been lying."
Educators have long been sharply divided
over bilingual education. Backers say that many students who grew up without
English need lessons in their own tongue while they are learning the nation's
dominant language. Opponents say that approach shunts students into a segregated
track that fails to give them critical English skills.
Matta Tuchman has made a name for herself
in California on the issue. She is the quotable Latina teacher who prescribes
English, English and more English for a district where most children enter
school speaking Spanish.
Though widely identified as an "English-only"
advocate, Matta Tuchman says she dislikes that label because of the connotation
that "you cannot speak any other language than English." Instead,
she calls herself an advocate for English literacy.
Matta Tuchman, 55, has been spreading the
word for years. She says she began with a simple desire to help children
in Santa Ana Unified School District. But she also has shown political
aspirations. For many years she was a school board trustee in Tustin. In
1994, as a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, she
finished fifth in a field of 12 with a lightly funded campaign.
Now she has deep-pocket support and a national
spotlight. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, a maverick Republican
and multimillionaire, has teamed with Matta Tuchman, also a Republican,
to sponsor a proposed June 1998 ballot measure that would require instruction
in English for the 1.4 million California students who are not fluent in
the language. Parents who want their children to get bilingual education
would have to ask for it.
Unz is using his own funds to help gather
the 433,269 signatures of registered voters needed by November to qualify
the initiative for the June ballot.
The "English for the Children"
initiative, launched last month in Los Angeles, comes as bilingual advocates
are on the defensive.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is
seeking to rewrite regulations that favor the use of native languages for
most students who are still learning English. In addition, four Orange
County school districts have won permission in the past two years to scrap
bilingual education. The latest, Orange Unified, began its English-intensive
program last week after school board members pronounced bilingual teaching
State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), sponsor
of legislation that would allow school districts more freedom to choose
how to teach children who are not fluent in English, said the political
climate in California favors an overhaul of bilingual education. She said
the question is whether reform will come from the Unz-Matta Tuchman initiative--which
she believes will qualify for a vote--or what she called "sensible"
Most state political leaders are steering
clear of the proposed initiative. State schools chief Delaine Eastin, a
Democrat, would not comment. Dan Edwards, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson,
said the Republican chief executive has no position.
Edwards acknowledged that Matta Tuchman's
profile is rising as her proposal receives publicity in newspapers across
the nation. "Having taught, and being Hispanic herself, she makes
a persuasive argument," Edwards said. "She's been railing against
[bilingual education] for years without as much exposure as she's got now."
Matta Tuchman's foes criticize her as a misguided
fanatic and say she is exploiting ethnic tensions in a manner reminiscent
of Propositions 187 and 209. Those measures, approved by voters in 1994
and 1996, sought to bar certain public services to illegal immigrants and
curb state affirmative action.
"For Latinos, we see this as three in
a row," said Theresa Bustillos of the Mexican American Legal Defense
and Educational Fund, which opposes the Unz-Matta Tuchman initiative. "You
can't help but think this is going to continue to divide the state."
Matta Tuchman and Unz, who was an early opponent
of Proposition 187, deny that their measure is anti-immigrant. Matta Tuchman
says she voted for the controversial 1994 proposition but would probably
vote differently on it now.
Matta Tuchman points out that she was honored
in 1988 by a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens
as "woman of the year" for her work in education--though officials
of the organization say they oppose her initiative.
She is known as a relentless advocate. One
former political opponent, Trustee Jonathan W. Abelove of the Tustin Unified
School District, recalled that Matta Tuchman showed up on his doorstep
on Mother's Day in 1994 to hand-deliver a stack of anti-bilingual documents.
With school out for the summer, Matta Tuchman
receives visitors at her Lemon Heights home in the foothills overlooking
Santa Ana and Tustin.
She says she understands the difficulties
faced by poor minority families. She was born in Pecos, Texas, to Mexican
American parents who earned a living as migrant laborers and later started
a restaurant. Matta Tuchman jokes that she was not born on the right side
of the tracks but actually "on the tracks" because she occasionally
traveled on a boxcar as an infant while her father worked for a railroad.
Matta Tuchman says her parents insisted on
speaking English with her as she was growing up. She picked up Spanish
from her surroundings and recently took language classes in Mexico.
"I love being bilingual," she said.
"I think it's a true asset."
Since she became an elementary teacher in
Santa Ana in 1967, Tuchman says, she has never used Spanish textbooks or
anything more than bits of oral Spanish in the classroom. She has asked
for the students with the least background in English and has taught them
with a technique known as "sheltered immersion."
That means students are given visual or other
aids to help with English words they do not know--for instance, pictures
of coins in a mathematics lesson or pictures of mountains in a geography
lesson. Many bilingual advocates contend that such students would be better
served by lessons based on their own language and supplemented with English
vocabulary drills until they are ready to move into full English instruction.
Matta Tuchman and her colleagues at Taft
Elementary have kept the school an English-immersion oasis in an area with
a growing Spanish-speaking population. In 1985, Matta Tuchman and other
teachers refused a principal's order to convert to a bilingual format.
Spurred in part by Matta Tuchman, parents mobilized to keep the school
as was. The teacher stayed, and the principal left.
"He spun and crashed and burned,"
said Bill Hart, Taft's principal for the past eight years. "Poor guy."
Hart said no parents have ever asked him
to put their children in bilingual classes, though most Santa Ana elementary
schools offer them. He said the school often has a waiting list for enrollment.
Matta Tuchman says Taft shows what other
schools could do if allowed to convert to English immersion. Its students
routinely outperform their Santa Ana peers in standardized tests.
But Taft has some demographic advantages.
About 36% of Taft students are classified
as "limited English proficient," less than half the average for
Santa Ana elementary schools. The campus also draws from a neighborhood
more prosperous than the city as a whole.
Santa Ana district officials praise Matta
Tuchman's teaching. But they say many students are excelling, including
those in bilingual programs. They cite Heninger Elementary, named this
year as a California "distinguished school." Nine out of 10 Heninger
students are not fluent in English, and the school has an intensive bilingual
Heninger Principal Kathy Sabine said of Matta
Tuchman's proposal: "Don't make me do it your way, and I won't make
you do it mine. Let me do what I know is working with my kids."
Yet to be seen is how parents and voters--two
distinct blocs--will respond to the proposed ballot initiative. Matta Tuchman
says she expects both will flock to her side.
But Kathi Jo Brunning, an official in the
Santa Ana Parent-Teacher Assn., says the initiative is prompting deep concern
among some parents, especially those who can only follow their children's
schoolwork through Spanish.
"Our first impression of it is not favorable,"
she said. "It's a drastic move. There is a definite fear."
Gloria Matta Tuchman, a teacher in the Santa
Ana Unified School District, says students are better off without bilingual
education. Her school, Taft Elementary, is one of the few in the district
that does not offer bilingual classes. Instead, it uses English immersion
to teach students who aren't fluent in the language. Here are reading scores
for fifth-graders on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, administered
in English, plus the percentage of students at each school who qualify
for subsidized lunches and are classified as "limited English proficient."
District officials say school demographics are a key factor in test performance.
CTBS Reading Comprehension, Spring 1997
School Percentile price lunch % LEP
Greenville 59 22.35% 18.03%
Muir 51 32.83% 19.09%
Taft 48 43.81% 36.19%
Santiago 37 59.03% 56.73%
Jefferson 24 61.50% 56.92%
Diamond 24 88.24% 74.86%
Adams 21 82.07% 76.62%
Monroe 19 84.68% 76.96%
Harvey 22 85.61% 79.23%
Remington 20 89.91% 80.00%
Fremont 19 80.56% 80.47%
Madison 18 84.48% 81.88%
Washington 20 76.41% 82.54%
Edison 22 89.07% 83.10%
Jackson 18 82.26% 83.47%
Sepulveda 20 84.84% 83.77%
King 12 87.58% 83.81%
Lincoln 15 84.37% 84.72%
Hoover 16 87.22% 85.96%
Walker 21 84.63% 86.35%
Carver 21 96.94% 86.38%
Wilson 20 82.97% 87.51%
Martin 17 80.36% 87.62%
Franklin 16 93.77% 88.83%
Pio Pico 13 93.41% 90.29%
Garfield 16 88.71% 91.12%
Heninger 23 92.54% 91.66%
Roosevelt 17 84.74% 91.81%
Monte Vista 19 94.08% 93.25%
Lowell 15 87.78% 93.33%
Kennedy 14 93.58% 99.08%
Source: Santa Ana Unified School District