San Jose Mercury News
Sunday, December 14, 1997
English Lessons: The Bilingual Debate
Gabriela Ayala and Victor Lopez live in different worlds.
Both are Latino 6-year-olds from immigrant families in East San Jose. And both are growing up in homes where Spanish is the primary language.
But when Victor goes to Cesar Chavez Elementary School every weekday morning, his first-grade teacher greets him in Spanish.
Just three miles to the south, at O.B. Whaley Elementary School, Gabriela's teacher speaks only English.
Which educational strategy is more appropriate -- which one will ensure a better future for California's children -- is quickly becoming the state's most emotionally charged public policy issue since last year's debate over racial preferences.
Although the bilingual education conflict is not new, businessman Ron Unz and teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman fanned the flames this year when they drafted the "English for the Children" ballot initiative. State officials are expected to decide later this month whether the 760,000 petition signatures Unz and Tuchman submitted a month ago were enough to qualify the measure for the June 1998 ballot.
The initiative appears to be immensely popular. Nearly seven in 10 people said they would vote for the proposal in a Field Poll released last week. And Latino parents in Los Angeles have protested for the right to have their children taught in English.
If the initiative passes, it would mandate that the "overwhelming majority" of classwork in public schools take place in English. Students not fluent in English would spend a year in a "structured English immersion" class, where they would have a chance to learn English before moving into a regular classroom. Waivers could be granted only on a limited basis.
Unz says California schools are taking too long to get children fluent in English, leaving them ill-prepared to function in society.
Critics of the Unz initiative say when it's done properly, bilingual education works. And where it doesn't, it should be fixed, not replaced with a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
Unz's English-first approach would be a major philosophical shift in California. For decades, state education officials have urged, cajoled, even threatened school districts into teaching their students in their native language whenever possible. In some cases, the state withheld funds from districts that didn't meet education department guidelines.
But even with that pressure, many districts have not complied. A few, mostly in Orange County, oppose bilingual education on philosophical grounds, seeing it as a failed educational strategy. Countless other districts say they simply cannot offer native-language instruction because there are not enough bilingual teachers for the increasingly complex mix of languages that students are speaking.
In fact, of the 1.4 million students classified as having little or no English skills, only about 30 percent are in bilingual classrooms.
The rest of the students either receive no special services or they are in classes where English is the primary language.
Chavez and Whaley elementary schools offer snapshots of two of the many approaches California schools are taking to address the language issue.
With a student population that is overwhelmingly Latino, Chavez has adopted a bilingual education model for many of its classes. Victor will spend the next couple of years in a classroom where most of the lessons are in Spanish, then phase into mostly English instruction as he gets older.
Whaley's students are a virtually even mix of Latino and Vietnamese, and the instruction is almost entirely in English. To succeed in school, Gabriela will need to learn her second language as quickly as possible.
The stories of how these two schools teach children who arrive on campus speaking little or no English offer insights into the issues underlying the bilingual education debate.
English First: O.B. Whaley School
If Ron Unz had his way, all of California first-grade classrooms would someday look much like Betsy Lew's.
In Room 22 at O.B. Whaley Elementary School in San Jose, Lew teaches her 20 students in English -- even the 14 who came to her class this year speaking little or no English.
"I look at it this way. This is the way I was taught English," says Lew, who was born in Canton, China, but schooled in Sacramento. "I went to kindergarten where everyone spoke English, and you just learned to communicate."
For more than two decades, California has urged schools to educate children first in their native language, whether it is Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or Hmong. The theory is that this allows students to understand what is happening in the classroom as they become literate in English.
But a majority of schools continue to educate their students mostly in English. Although some districts are philosophically opposed to bilingual education, others cannot find enough bilingual teachers to work with the soaring number of students with inadequate English skills.
Upward spike of Asians
"In the late '80s, there was a real spike upward in the number of Vietnamese and other Asians," said Assistant Superintendent Phyllis Lindstrom. "Things were beginning to look a lot different."
With special permission from the state, Evergreen turned to a program that educates students almost entirely in English from the first day of school. Although they still receive some help in their home language, students are never segregated by language.
To the casual observer, the strategy is barely discernible from regular English-language classes. But there are subtle differences.
Betsy Lew's first-grade class at O.B. Whaley School, composed of children who speak a variety of languages at home, is taught mostly in English. Here, the teacher -- a native of China who learned English in Sacramento -- gestures to her students as she reads them a story. Lew now relies more on repetition, hand signals and other visual cues to get students to comprehend what is happening. This was especially important last year, when she taught kindergarten.
"Maybe three spoke any significant amount of English at home," Lew said. "So you have to repeat things several times. It took a couple of months."
But even a year later, when most of her first-grade students have a grasp of English, Lew still uses both visual and sound cues to get students learning and thinking about new words and concepts.
A weather song
"You have to know how to teach them more visually now, because there is such a mix of languages," Lew said. "Even in my poems, I add a lot of pictures, because they don't know what a lot of the words are."
Programs that immerse children in English are often controversial. Unz's ballot initiative, which would replace most bilingual education with one-year "sheltered English immersion" classes, has been roundly criticized by many educators. And the Orange Unified School District, facing a lawsuit from civil rights groups and parents, needed permission from a federal judge this year to run its English immersion program, at least until the case is resolved by the state Supreme Court.
Critics say English immersion programs handicap students by ignoring language skills they bring to school and placing them in an incomprehensible environment.
Rosalina Salinas, past-president of California Association for Bilingual Education, says she worries about the non-English speaking child who has spent the first years of life learning a language, only to be thrust into an English-only classroom.
"Think about coming into a situation where all that (knowledge) is no longer useful to you," Salinas said.
'I think we do well'
"A lot of children come from homes where the Spanish is broken," Collett said, "and it doesn't work to build on that. What we do is immerse them in English, and it seems to work for them. If they come in speaking no English, by the end of kindergarten, they are doing well enough to function at grade level. I think we do well."
The research is mixed.
Aguirre International in San Mateo spent eight years studying English immersion and two types of bilingual programs for the U.S. Department of Education. In the widely cited study, known as "The Ramirez Report," researchers reported that, through the third grade, English language skills and student achievement were comparable for all three types of programs. In the long run, though, students demonstrated stronger academic and English language skills in the "late-exit" bilingual programs, where children don't move to mostly English instruction until sixth grade.
"All things being equal, the research would say that (immersion students) suffer a slight disadvantage in learning academic content," said Stanford University Professor Kenji Hakuta. 'And even though they are in English-only classes, they are probably not learning English better than in a bilingual program."
But a New York City Schools study published in 1994 contradicts that. It found that students in English-language classrooms posted better reading and math scores than students in native-language programs.
An equal approach
Although the vast majority of instruction is in English, a network of "primary language assistants" works with students in their native language to try to bridge any instructional gaps. Aides work with students in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish, usually for about 30 minutes a day.
Other aides -- who speak only English -- also work with students. In one instance, an aide worked with five students who Lew felt needed extra help. With the students seated around a table on tiny green chairs, the aide helped them build their English vocabulary by examining concepts, such as "over" and "under."
"Let's see if Jennifer can fit under the table," she said, instructing the girl to crawl under the table. "There she is: under the table."
Evergreen officials say that extra support helps the district achieve its two main goals: making students quickly literate in English -- usually in three to five years -- and getting them to succeed academically.
Anywhere from 12 percent to 20 percent of Evergreen's "limited-English proficient" students are reclassified as fluent in English each year, well above the state average of 6.7 percent. And those who do complete the program tend to do as well, if not better, on standardized tests than the district as a whole, according to district records.
Evergreen tracks the achievement of all students who complete its program. In 1996, Spanish-speaking students scored just below the national average on the Stanford Achievement Test, the district's standardized reading exam. All other language groups exceeded the national average.
In math, all language groups tested above the 50th percentile -- or the national average, or the point where half the students score higher and half score lower.
'If they are getting kids up to the 50th percentile, then they really are doing a good job, because most programs don't get anywhere near that," said Duane Campbell, professor of bilingual education at California State University-Sacramento.
Evergreen officials say the combination of properly trained teachers -- all instructors must learn about the various stages of language acquisition -- and aides who can speak the students' languages, helps students understand what is happening in the classroom.
Within weeks after starting school, many kindergartners are starting to converse in English, singing songs and joking with their playmates. By the second month of first grade, Lew's students have already covered classroom walls with writing assignments.
Gabriela Ayala, 6, is a testament to how quickly some students adapt. When she started kindergarten last year, "Gabby" barely spoke a word of English.
Now, just over a year later, she has a strong grasp of conversational English and is one of the top students in Lew's class.
"She writes in sentences, she knows capital letters and punctuation, and she can read with expression, which is sometimes hard for kids this age," Lew said.
Although Spanish is her family's primary language, Gabby regularly practices English with her parents and siblings, said her mother, Alba, who immigrated from El Salvador 15 years ago.
"I always choose English-only classes," Ayala said. "At first, I know they will have a hard time at school. But now my Gabby is doing so well, I'm so proud of her."
But even ardent supporters of English-language programs say the strategy takes time to pay off.
Evergreen officials say it takes three to five years for most of their students to acquire the "academic" English needed to understand complex concepts.
District officials concede their program has drawbacks. The most obvious is that many students often never develop fluency in their native language. And many parents cannot help their own children with their homework because it is in English.
Evergreen principals and teachers try to stimulate parent involvement by stocking foreign language books in school libraries, and encouraging parents to read to their children in their native language.
"The ideal would be every student leaves the district totally bi-literate," Lindstrom said. "That would be wonderful. Our goal is to have every student acquire English as quickly as possible and excel academically, and we do that. It may not be an ideal. But it's what works for us."
Bilingual Education: Cesar Chavez School
Kathleen Leclair's classroom at San Jose's Cesar Chavez School is decorated with alphabet strips and posters -- all in Spanish.
Her first-graders spend most of their day learning to read and write in their native language -- Spanish. The remaining half-hour, they speak only English.
Each year, as their mastery of English grows, fewer of their lessons will be in Spanish. By the fifth grade, almost all will be in English.
This is the sort of instruction that Ron Unz and other critics of bilingual education want all but eliminated in California -- a state where every fourth student does not speak English fluently. Fewer than a third of those students are enrolled in one of the state's many types of bilingual programs.
Supporters of Unz's proposed initiative argue that too few of the students who are taught in their native language are mastering English.
"Enormous numbers of California schoolchildren today leave years of schooling with limited spoken English and almost no ability to read or write English," Unz says on his World Wide Web site.
Just as adamantly, bilingual supporters like Leclair argue that teaching students in their native language is the best strategy for keeping them from falling behind in the rest of their studies as they struggle to master English.
The lessons may be in Spanish, Leclair says, but the ultimate goal: "We want them to learn English."
She sounds out the word, emphasizing the "mmmm," "onnnn" and "ssss" sounds. The children mimic her sounds, then one boy's face lights up and he selects the letters 'm' and 'o.' Others follow suit and sound out the letters until the word is spelled correctly.
The theory behind this approach is that once students have mastered a skill such as reading in one language, they can easily transfer that skill to a second.
This year, Leclair is sharing teaching duties with Raquel Dequiroz, who takes the students two days a week. The same strategies they are using to help their students tackle new words and stories in Spanish -- sounding out words, looking for familiar letters and using pictures as prompts -- will also be useful when they begin reading in English, Leclair says.
Laura Lopez, whose son Victor is in the class, says she likes the approach the teachers are taking. It's the same style of instruction her older daughter, Rachel, experienced in first grade last year.
While it's important her children learn English, Lopez said in Spanish, she doesn't want them to lose their native tongue.
Bilingual education works for her children, she said: "They get both (languages)."
At other schools, native language instruction may come in a different package. The bilingual program at San Jose Unified's Schallenberger School, for example, combines students who are fluent in English and those who speak little of the language in the same room with a teacher who addresses them in both languages. The goal is that all students will speak Spanish and English fluently by fifth grade.
Indeed, educators take so many different approaches that it's difficult to come up with a single definition of a bilingual program. Still, the underlying theory is universal: Teaching students in their native language builds on knowledge they already bring to the classroom.
"Our basic grammatical structure is defined by the age of 3 or 3 1/2. Children have several thousand vocabulary words by the time they enter school," said Reynaldo Macias, a professor of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara and director of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute. "(Native language instruction) simply builds on that knowledge."
Schallenberger Principal Carol Garcia likes to say "Eventually these kids have to be transferred to English. It's better if it's done early, rather than later."
At Chavez, where most students receive Spanish instruction through fifth grade, first-grade children in bilingual classes break into groups for English instruction. After lunch, Leclair's students march dutifully to one of three classrooms for their 30 minutes of English.
It's an intriguing transformation. Students who spent most of their morning speaking animatedly in Spanish are suddenly shouting and yelling in English.
René Sanchez, who works with six of Leclair's students, said he is already seeing gains. Bashful students who had to be prodded to use English in September now offer complex explanations for why they should be the ones allowed to pass out new books or papers.
It's Sanchez's job to help the students feel comfortable with the new language and to take the little bits and pieces they've picked up on the playground, on television or in the supermarket and teach them how to use the words and phrases properly. Once they're comfortable with English, he says, they can begin learning grammar and reading.
Chavez has used this approach for only a few years, so data on its effectiveness is scarce. Yet teachers remain confident those who make it through the entire program will succeed. In Leclair's room, for example, students who struggled to write simple words in September are now writing sentences.
District of challenges
Alum Rock students are among the poorest in the state. They rarely stay in one school long enough to complete a program of instruction. Only 30 percent of the children who start kindergarten at Chavez, for instance, are expected to still be enrolled at the school by fifth grade.
Statistics show that fewer Alum Rock students than the state average are reclassified each year from limited-English speakers to "Fluent English Proficient." Statewide, 6.7 percent of the students who started school speaking little or no English are moved into the fluent category annually. In Alum Rock, that number ranges from 7 percent at some schools to zero at others.
Sharon Groves, who coordinates instructional programs for the district, acknowledges the low numbers, but she said statistics don't tell the entire story. She noted the number of reclassified Alum Rock students more than doubled last year even though the district raised the test score to qualify.
Groves contended that districts with higher rates often have lower numbers of non-English speaking students who tend to move around less, so they receive more consistent education.
"It's not an excuse," she said, "it's a reality."
Standardized test scores also show that at some Alum Rock schools, Spanish-speaking students tend to do as well as or better than English-speaking students in math, reading and language -- an indication that while students have not yet mastered English, they are not falling behind in other academic areas, Groves said.
Nevertheless, proponents acknowledge that there is room for improvement in bilingual education.
"When the program is done right with a qualified teacher, then it can mean a good education for all students," said Paula Acree, a bilingual research teacher at Schallenberger.
Dearth of teachers
Even in Alum Rock, which has long been committed to bilingual instruction, the shortage of qualified bilingual teachers makes it impossible for the district to offer native language instruction to all students. So, many students find themselves in English-only classrooms.
The native language those children are in danger of losing could prove a valuable asset in the future, said Mary Jew, who recently was hired to coordinate Alum Rock's bilingual programs.
"In Silicon Valley, how many companies want just English-only employees?" Jew said. "The world is different now. Kids come from all backgrounds, and it would be sad not to be able to maintain the languages of these kids."
Bilingual Education, and Its Critics, Date to Last
As subsequent waves of immigrants have hit America's shores, the country has wrestled with how best to teach their children. And many parents have lobbied to have them taught in their native language.
In the mid-1800s, New York opened schools where German was the language of choice, according to Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute who has studied the history of bilingual education. By the late 1880s, the number of U.S. bilingual schools had peaked.
San Francisco opened a Chinese school in 1885 to teach the increasing number of students of Chinese ancestry -- and also to segregate them. Texas even had seven Czech-language public schools. And an 1872 Oregon law allowed voters to establish schools where children would be taught in their native language.
"Bilingual education has been around for a long time," Rothstein said.
And so have its critics. An example: In 1889, the governor of Wisconsin attempted to ban German from being taught in public schools.
Over the years, opposition spread. After the country's entrance into World War I, it became "unpatriotic" to speak anything but English -- especially when Americans were fighting against the Germans and Italians. And so, according to Rothstein, foreign-language public schools largely disappeared.
Demand for bilingual teaching resurfaced during the Cold War.
In the early 1950s, an influx of highly educated Cuban refugees, who did not want their children to lose their Spanish, landed in Florida's Dade County. In 1961, Dade schools became probably the first in the nation to offer bilingual programs since the 1920s, said James Crawford, author of "Bilingualism in America: A Forgotten Legacy."
The federal government made its first significant overture on behalf of immigrant students with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.
According to Alexander Sapiens, a professor of education at San Jose State University that landmark legislation was followed four years later by the Bilingual Education Act, known as Title VII, co-sponsored by California senator Alan Cranston. That law makes federal funding available for programs to meet the needs of students who don't speak English fluently.
Today, California schools receive about $390 million a year in state and federal funds to help students with limited English skills through services ranging from tutors to after-school homework programs.
A series of court rulings also have laid the groundwork for bilingual programs:
Lau vs. Nichols (1974). After students of Chinese ancestry sued the San Francisco Unified School District, the Supreme Court ruled the district must provide special language instruction to allow non-English-speaking students to understand the same lessons and textbooks as their English-speaking counterparts.
Castaneda vs. Pickard (1981). This Texas case set the standards by which schools could determine whether they had complied with the law. A federal court said schools were required to establish programs, based on educational research, for students who did not speak English fluently and demonstrate students are making progress in overcoming language barriers.
Teresa P. vs. Berkeley Unified School District (1989) gave districts wide latitude in choosing programs to meet the needs of students who were not fluent in English -- as long as they prove students are served well.
Transition to English Slow, Varies by District
When it comes to bilingual education, Ron Unz likes to say, the numbers tell the story.
"One-fourth of California students -- or about 1.3 million -- don't know English," Unz said recently. "And only 5 or 6 percent of those students learn English each year. That's an annual failure rate of 95 percent."
But statistics can be misleading.
Unz bases his argument on the state's annual count of students who moved from speaking little or no English to English fluency.
Known as the "redesignation rate," the figure is reported in percentages. So if a school starts with 100 "limited English proficient" students, and 20 of them are reclassified as fluent in English, the school's redesignation rate is 20 percent.
The average statewide rate last year was 6.7 percent, a number Unz calls woefully low.
That figure should be taken with a grain of salt, state officials caution.
For example, school districts set their own guidelines for English fluency, making comparisons difficult. And the state does not report whether reclassified students were in bilingual programs or English-language programs.
Unz acknowledges those problems. But he says "they are the only numbers available," and they suggest a system that is taking too long to teach its students English.
State officials say critics ignore the fact that students need several years to learn English.
"Given what we know about language acquisition, it's unreasonable to expect a complete redesignation of all children every year," said Norm Gold, manager of bilingual compliance for the state education department. "That's never happened anywhere in the world."