1. What is the "English Language Education for Children in Public Schools" initiative about?
This poorly-written and ill-conceived initiative seeks to eliminate not only bilingual education but all existing English language development programs, and replace them with an unproven and inflexible program of "sheltered English immersion." The initiative would require that only English be used in all public school classrooms. English learners would be placed in separate classrooms for one year to learn English regardless of the wishes of parents and the recommendation of local schools and districts. Children of different ages, grade levels and languages could all be placed together in these English-only classrooms. After one year, or about 175 days, students would be placed in regular classrooms whether or not they had mastered English. The initiative would basically turn back the clock more than thirty years and take us back to a failed language development program that neglected the needs of Arizona's English learners and proved to be a disaster for them.
2. Who supports the initiative?
A group called English for the Children - Arizona is attempting to place the initiative on the November 2000 ballot. The initiative is based on the measure that was passed by voters in California at the 1998 primary election. Ron Unz, the wealthy computer businessman who wrote the California measure and contributed substantial amounts of his own money to the campaign to pass it, has agreed to support the campaign in Arizona. He has no background whatsoever in education, or the education of English learners in particular. The campaign is led by Maria Mendoza and Hector Ayala. Neither has any experience as a teacher in a bilingual education program.
3. What is an "English learner"?
English learners are students whose primary home language is not English and who have scored below a certain percentage on tests for English fluency. There are approximately 112,000 English learners in the Arizona public schools. Schools typically place them in English language development programs, such as bilingual education or English as a Second Language. Schools then periodically assess their English fluency, and transfer them to mainstream classrooms when they have become fluent enough to succeed in classes taught only in English.
English learners come from diverse backgrounds and speak many different languages. Approximately 85% speak Spanish; 8% speak an American Indian language (6% Navajo, 1% Apache, 1% other); 4% speak an Asian language; and 3% speak various other languages. The initiative would dictate the type of program to be provided to all English learners, replacing all language development programs, including the language revitalization projects serving Arizona's Native American population.
4. What is bilingual education?
Bilingual education teaches students English language skills in English while at the same time teaching them other subjects, like science, math and social studies, in their native language so that they maintain the appropriate grade level in those subjects. There are three different kinds of bilingual programs in Arizona. All include some amount of teaching in English from day one. The amount increases over time as students become more familiar with the language.
5. How many English learners are in bilingual education?
Only 37% of Arizona's English learners are in bilingual programs. That means that the great majority are already in programs that use little or none of a child's primary language. None of these programs, however, imposes an arbitrary one-year limit on a child's participation.
6. Haven't the existing programs been a failure? Don't they have a 96% failure rate?
No, the programs now in use have not been a failure. The redesignation rate simply means that every year about 4% of English learners are classified as having learned English well enough to succeed in mainstream classrooms. It does not mean that the other 96% have failed, just that they need more time to master English. Studies show that children need three or more years to become fluent in English. Consistent with this research, the Arizona children who were reclassified during the 1997-98 school year had spent an average of 3.4 years in a language development program. The 4% redesignation rate is therefore misleading because, on average, only those students with three-plus years of service in a program would have been expected to be reclassified as English proficient. It's like saying that the school system is failing because only 1 out of 12 students are graduating, when only those completing the twelfth grade would be expected to graduate in any given year.
7. Are there successful bilingual programs?
Yes, studies show that bilingual instruction is effective in teaching students how to speak, read and write English, and that bilingual education programs are more successful than other forms of instruction in producing high academic achievement. In fact, in Arizona, children in bilingual education outperform children in other programs on reading and language tests.
8. Why shouldn't bilingual education be replaced?
It is a myth that bilingual education has failed. Although it has not worked as intended in some schools, this is due to the same problems faced by every program in our public schools - inadequate resources, untrained teachers or poor management - and not problems with bilingual education. No program works in every school. Bilingual education is no different from any other program, and it cannot be assessed in a vacuum. A school that poorly runs its bilingual education program likely mismanages its math and science programs. If a program is improperly implemented, the answer is not to eliminate it but to fix the problems that make the program ineffective at the particular school: to provide the needed resources, train better teachers, and make the school and the district more accountable. Bilingual education can be successful, and districts should be allowed to use it if they want to.
Instead of taking a reasonable approach, the initiative seeks to eliminate all language development programs, not just bilingual education, and forces every community and school in the state to use a single new and unproven program. This radical experiment would not only eliminate parental choice and strip schools of local control but place Arizona's English Learners at great risk of failure in school. That's why leaders such as Governor Jane Dee Hull and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan have already come out against initiative, and the Governor has stated she fears it would be "destructive."
9. What is "sheltered English immersion"?
The initiative requires all English learners to be taught, for one year, in classrooms where all subjects are taught in English, with the teaching designed for students who are learning the language. It is important to know that the initiative uses the term "sheltered English immersion" in a way far different from education experts. English immersion is generally intended for intermediate English learners, not beginners, to help them get up to speed as they move into regular classes. It is not supposed to last for only one year, it is not supposed to be the only way of teaching English, and children of all ages, grade levels and languages are not supposed to be put in the same classrooms.
It is also important to know that a similar program was used in Arizona from 1919 to 1967. Like the initiative, the program, known in some school districts as 1-C, required English learners of all ages to be placed in separate classrooms for one year before they were placed in mainstream classrooms, restricted the use of their native language, and used teachers who were not bilingual and were not trained in the education of English learners. It resulted in an outrageously low graduation rate for Latinos, and prompted the development of programs designed to meet the specific educational needs of Arizona's English learners.
10. How would the initiative affect parental choice?
The initiative robs parents of the right they now possess to choose how their children are to be taught. The initiative requires all English learners to be placed in separate classrooms for no more than one year to learn only English. It would basically allow a parent to choose some other form of instruction, such as bilingual education, only if their child is over ten. Schools could grant waivers based solely on three narrow exceptions: (1) the child already knows English; (2) the child is over 10 years old; or (3) the child has "special" physical or psychological needs. The first exception is meaningless because few English learners would be able to demonstrate English fluency. The third exception is extremely limited because it would only apply to those children in need of special education services. The second exception is the only real option, but most parents would not be able to use it, if, as in California, the majority of English learners are in the primary grades.
Even if a child were to meet one of the exceptions, the school could still deny a waiver without giving any reason or providing any opportunity to appeal. More important, even if a child were granted a waiver, the school would not be obligated to provide another program like bilingual education. Parents of at least 20 students from the same grade level would have to obtain waivers before another program would be offered to English learners in the school. Otherwise, English learners would be forced to transfer to a distant school or to remain in English-only classrooms with students of all ages, grade levels and languages.
11. Do parents now have a choice about how their children learn to speak English? Can they request English-only instruction?
Yes. Programs like bilingual education are not mandatory; they are voluntary. The state currently gives parents a right to choose whether to place their children in a language development program. Parents who do not want their children in bilingual education, for example, simply have to provide written notice to the school principal.
12. How would the initiative affect local control?
School districts now have a variety of programs to choose from, and enjoy flexibility in addressing the needs of English learners. The initiative would strip local schools and districts of control over how to educate English learners most effectively, and deny them the ability to tailor their programs given their staff and resources.
13. What's wrong with the initiative's immersion approach?
The initiative's approach has two serious problems. One, it just isn't long enough. The initiative proposes a one-year program, but no research supports such an extreme approach. English learners usually spend three-plus years in language development programs before they have gained enough command of the English language. In a single year, children could do no more than learn "playground English." Two, the initiative focuses on learning English to the exclusion of all other academic subjects. Students in immersion programs have to wait until they learn English before they can really learn math, science and other necessary subjects. This means that English learners in the initiative's sheltered English immersion classrooms would fall behind their English-fluent classmates, who would be learning those subjects from day one. Things would only get worse for English learners when they joined mainstream classrooms. Not knowing enough English to succeed and not prepared to do grade-level work, they would find it impossible to catch up.
Put simply, the initiative is a recipe for failure: it doesn't teach English learners enough English in the one-year immersion classrooms, causes them to fall behind their classmates, and then somehow expects them to compete. It is a "sink or sink" approach that is bound to have a devastating effect on English learners. Indeed, Arizona used a similarly structured program for nearly 50 years but ultimately abandoned the program in the late 1960s because it performed miserably.
The initiative's harmful impact, however, would not be limited to English Learners. The initiative would disrupt the learning environment of all students when English Learners are prematurely placed in mainstream classrooms. Teachers would be unprepared to handle the influx of English learners who would lack the English fluency to learn in mainstream classrooms. Teachers would find it difficult to complete the required work on time and maintain the necessary academic progress because some class time would inevitably be devoted to addressing language barriers and clearing up confusion rather than teaching the curriculum. The education of all children, therefore, would suffer under the initiative's one-year immersion program.
14. If you want children to learn English, shouldn't you teach them in English?
The initiative's one-year immersion program makes no sense. Students need more than a single year to gain enough command of the English language to succeed in school. In one year, they can only learn basic oral English, and they will fall behind in other subjects as their instruction is limited to learning English. But the goal of the public schools must be full academic fluency and proficiency in other important subjects like math and science. The arbitrary one-year limit on language development would be hard on all children. While the initiative is focused on young children, it must be remembered that it applies equally to older children, whose needs are often much more complex. They must struggle with difficult and sometimes foreign subject matter even as they attempt to learn basic English skills. Unfortunately, things are not as neat and simple as the initiative would have you believe. English learners are not all the same - they vary in age, primary language, exposure to English, and prior schooling - and they all need not only to learn English, but also to advance in subjects like math and science to make it in today's world.
15. What is the best way to each English to children who don't speak the language so that they can succeed in school?
The goal must be to teach students to learn academic English as quickly as possible without sacrificing their ability to learn other subjects. Effective instruction for English learners requires trained and experienced teachers to accomplish this dual goal. The initiative, however, provides no requirement that teachers have any background in working with English learners. But the initiative would force all teachers to work with English learners and make them do so under difficult circumstances: immersion teachers would be faced with the impossible task of teaching English in one year to children of various ages and languages; and mainstream teachers would find English learners prematurely transferred into their classrooms and would have to balance their needs against those of English-fluent students.
To allow students to both learn English and excel in other important subjects, bilingual education and other language develop programs, by contrast, employ credentialed staff - teachers and assistants with training and experience in the education of English Learners. These programs, moreover, do not impose any arbitrary time cut-off. Instead, they transfer students to mainstream classrooms only when they have developed the language skills necessary to thrive in an English-only environment.
16. Do Latinos support the initiative?
All Latino parents want their children to learn English. Many have faced limited upward mobility due to their lack of English skills and want their children to enjoy opportunities they didn't have.
The great majority of Latino parents, especially those with children in successful programs, are outraged by recent attempts to eliminate bilingual education for their children and will fight to defend it. They believe learning English should not come at the expense of academic success. In California, Latinos voted overwhelmingly against the initiative to end bilingual education. Statewide, 2 out of almost every 3 Latino voters rejected the initiative, and in Huntington Park, the city with heaviest population of Mexican immigrants, 3 out of almost every 4 voters cast a ballot against it.
Some Latino parents may be concerned that their children are not learning English fast enough. The initiative plays on their hopes and fears by offering a "quick-fix" solution - one year and out. Unfortunately, it fails to deal with the real problems facing our schools and children, and ignores the many successful bilingual education programs in this state.
All people concerned about the education of English learners are unlikely to support the initiative once they realize the devastating impact it would have on the education of English learners.
17. What has the experience been in California under its initiative?
It is difficult to draw any conclusions based on this past year. Because the initiative is so poorly written, there has been a lot of confusion about what the measure actually requires and when waivers have to be offered. As a result, the measure has been unevenly applied; some bilingual programs have been destroyed, while many others have been left intact.
English learners in immersion classrooms have certainly been exposed to more conversational English, but the true measure of success has to be whether they are developing the language skills necessary to succeed in school and whether they are performing at grade level in other subjects. It is still too early to tell the full effect of the initiative's immersion program. However, in Orange County, the districts that led the effort to end bilingual education have seen a drop in the number of students redesignated as fluent this year. The California State Board of Education, moreover, has admitted that English learners will need to be provided with remedial classes to make up the deficits they will develop in the initiative's immersion classrooms.
Whatever happens in California, the experience in Arizona would likely be worse for two main reasons. First, the initiative is much more restrictive about the use of native language. While the California measure stated that English had to be "overwhelmingly" the language of instruction, the initiative states that English is the only language of instruction and requires that all subjects be taught only in English. Second, the initiative severely limits the ability of parents to obtain a waiver for their children. The California measure permitted waivers for children with special emotional or educational needs, but the initiative has limited this exception to handicapped children in need of special education services.
18. What's the status of litigation in California?
The litigation is still in its early stages. MALDEF, Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, Inc., and other civil rights organizations filed suit on behalf of all English learners in California, and MALDEF and the ACLU also sued on behalf of English learners in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Preliminary requests to block the measure from going into effect have been denied. Both lawsuits are still proceeding.
19. Would the initiative save money?
No. The initiative would not eliminate or even reduce current funding for programs serving English learners. The initiative, however, may cost the state more money. Remedial programs would likely be necessary for students falling behind their grade level in core academic subjects as a result of the one-year, English-only program, and many students would likely be held back and would therefore take longer to graduate from the school system. Schools would have to purchase new textbooks, develop a new curriculum, and provide training for teachers and administrators. In addition, where waivers require it, schools would have to run two instructional programs for English learners. Finally, the state would spend funds to defend the English-only program, which is likely to be challenged in court on several grounds. Such litigation could result in the loss of all federal funds to Arizona public schools.
20. How would the initiative affect school administrators and staff?
School principals and staff would be burdened with having to administer the initiative's waiver procedure. They would have to meet with all parents who want to apply for a waiver and provide them with a description of educational services, review waiver requests and make complicated assessments of children's educational needs. The initiative would therefore involve already heavily-burdened school administrators and staff in a complex and time-consuming bureaucracy.
21. Why not try out the initiative and change it later if it doesn't work?
If the initiative passes, the only way to fix it later may be to pass another initiative. So if it passes, we may be stuck with it.