San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, April 6, 1998

'Sink or Swim' Prop 227 Hurts Kids

"I stared at the teacher as she moved about the room. She talked and wrote on the chalkboard, and the other students answered her questions, laughed at her comments, and talked among themselves. I sat and watched. That's all I could do. Nothing made sense. That night, I told my mother that I felt deaf in a hearing world."

In the days before bilingual education, every child place into an all-English classroom had experiences such as this. Left to "sink-or-swim," some students survived and graduated high school while many others dropped out.

This is the situation California schools will regress to if Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative proposed by millionaire Ron Unz, passes in the June election. Practically overnight, nearly 1.4 million students not yet fluent in English will be given 180 days to learn the language

Twelve-year-olds will be placed in the same classroom as 8-year-olds, and each will have to get what they can in those precious few days. Regardless of their readiness, these same students will then be placed into English-only classrooms with no help and no support. It doesn't take a vivid imagination to foresee the fate of these students. Many will do what their predecessors did a half century ago: Drown.

But, these students are facing different prospects. The economic demands of today are dramatically different from those of previous generations. In an increasingly technologically savvy country, high school dropouts are unlikely to make a living in vocations that a century ago required no diploma. With limited ability to read and write in English, these students are destined to a life of struggle on the economic margins.

Why abandon a method which gives students help in their native language while they learn English? We shouldn't. Despite popular perception, in study after study, researchers have found that bilingual education students in well-implemented programs acquire English rapidly and get a better education than those who get no help in the home language. In fact, these programs keep students in schools and provide them with the background needed to go to college or to get a job.

Of the 1.4 million limited-English students in California, only about 30 percent are in bilingual education programs. And yet it is not difficult to find convincing evidence of these programs' effectiveness. Across the state, students in good bilingual education programs outscore their counterparts on the state's own Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills in both math and reading, a test given in English. Beyond test scores, studies also show that students in bilingual education programs have higher self confidence and better attitudes toward school.

Bilingual education programs ensure that students keep up in their school subjects while learning English, making the transition to all-English classes easier. Under Proposition 227, not only will students have to continue learning English on their own after the 180 days, they will need to catch up with their peers in social studies, science, and math, peers who didn't stand still for a year. The burden will fall on teachers getting little or no support to cope with this mass of ill-prepared students, teachers who have received no special training to work with limited-English students but nonetheless will be held responsible for their progress.

Leaving students to fend for themselves is irresponsible policy. The one-room schoolhouse proposed by Unz will relegate an entire generation of students to the academic outhouse. If we want students to learn English quickly then we should stick with a program that has proven effective: bilingual education.

Lucy Tse is an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.