October 5, 1997
Choice looms: Fix or end bilingual education system
Theresa Corria brushes aside tears as she recalls the painful memories: hiding in the closet, crying and begging to not be sent to school.
They are the memories of a Spanish-speaking child who felt traumatized by attending an English-only school. Now principal at Fruit RidgeElementary in Sacramento, Corria fears an initiative that appears headed for the June ballot means her past could be repeated by many of her students.
No less passionate about the issue is Ron Unz, the millionaire software developer leading the "English for the Children Initiative," who argues that the current bilingual education system fails to teach children English.
With the initiative fast gaining the signatures needed to be placed on the ballot, it appears California voters will decide the best method to educate the state's 1.38 million students who can't speak English fluently -- a quarter of the total kindergarten through 12th-grade population.
They will find no easy answers in an arena plagued by decades of politicized and emotional debate, from academia to the state Legislature -- where politicians have been unable to pass bilingual reforms since the original law expired 10 years ago.
As Unz sees it, bilingual education -- in which students receive some academic instruction in their primary language while learning English -- "is impossible to implement and doesn't work."
He advocates an approach in which limited-English speakers would receive up to a year of English instruction -- in English -- before being mainstreamed in regular classrooms.
The initiative would effectively abolish bilingual education, except in limited circumstances in which parents could request it. At present, the reverse is true: Public schools are required to offer some form of "bilingual learning opportunities" unless parents request English-only instruction.
Initiative supporters must collect 433,269 valid signatures by Nov. 13 to qualify for the June ballot. While they have already collected more than 350,000 signatures, they hope to get about 300,000 more.
The outcome will have a substantial effect locally, particularly in Sacramento County, which has the state's fastest growing population of children not fluent in English.
"What really is shocking to me is . . . that the system is so totally nuts and nobody has done anything about it for all this time," said Unz, a Republican who ran for governor in 1994.
Even supporters of bilingual education admit that the current system is flawed. But they blame a lack of structure, consistency and accountability in programs for children learning English, as well as a shortage of qualified teachers.
The answer is not to gut the program, but to fix it, they argue.
"We don't stop teaching biology because some teachers aren't doing a good job. We don't give up algebra because we don't have the algebra teachers," said Norman Gold, manager for bilingual compliance for the California Department of Education.
At the crux of Unz's argument for change is his contention that bilingual education has a 95 percent failure rate because only about 5 percent of the state's "limited English proficient" (LEP) students are reclassified each year as fluent in English.
But bilingual supporters say the assessment is unfair because most programs are designed to take several years to move students into English-only classes.
Last year, 89,144 of the limited-English students in California -- or 6.7 percent -- were reclassified as fluent in English, according to the state. The criteria vary from district to district.
In addition, many of the state's LEP students already start out in English-only classes. As of March, 16 percent of LEP students received no special language services, and an additional 1.4 percent had been removed from language programs by their parents.
Little more than half of the students who aren't fluent in English fall somewhere in between, from having some assistance from aides who speak their native language to being pulled out of their regular classrooms for English instruction.
One-third of all LEP students are actually enrolled in bilingual programs that use instruction in students' primary language while they learn English. The large majority of those classes use Spanish, as Latino children constitute 80 percent of the state's LEP students.
Even within the bilingual category, the approaches can vary greatly from school to school, even within the same district.
Fruit Ridge Elementary in the Sacramento City Unified School District, for example, has adopted a "Spanish immersion" approach based on research that shows children who are literate in their first language learn a second language most easily.
Students in the program receive 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish in kindergarten and first grade, which is gradually reduced to a 50-50 English-Spanish split in fifth grade. More typical are "transitional" programs that use more English earlier, with an aim of moving students to regular classrooms by about third grade.
Fruit Ridge teacher Patti Garner said all of her second-graders are reading at or above grade level in Spanish, a feat in a district where the majority of students can't read at grade level and one-third are limited in English.
"You only have to learn to read once. They've already learned to read in Spanish. The skills transfer over" to English, Garner said.
More than a third of the Sacramento City district's students are limited in English. The largest number speak Spanish (6,514), followed closely by Hmong (5,399).
Only a fraction of those students are actually in bilingual classrooms -- 29 with Spanish-speaking teachers and three in Hmong -- with the rest receiving some other assistance in English language and other academic subjects, said Linda Nava Ventriglia, of the district's Center for Teaching Excellence.
Last year, more than 5 percent of the district's students receiving help in English were reclassified as proficient in the language.
Unz argues that the majority of Latino parents dislike bilingual education, pointing to a Los Angeles Times poll of Orange County residents in which only 17 percent of Latino respondents said they favored native language instruction until a child is ready to learn English.
But 57 percent chose mostly English instruction with some help in the child's native language, an option neither provided for nor prohibited by the initiative. Initiative spokeswoman Sheri Annis said bilingual teachers or aides could use a "few words here and there" in a child's native language but would mainly teach in English.
The Elk Grove Unified School District now uses aides to provide primary language help under a state waiver allowing greater flexibility in its programs for English learners who speak one of 64 different languages.
Elk Grove's LEP students -- nearly one in five -- are assisted by 70 bilingual "paraprofessionals" who use the children's native languages, said Elizabeth Pinkerton, director of state and federal programs.
"I really looked to see what it is that seems to work so well for us. I see a real nurturing environment in our schools," Pinkerton said. "We have an emphasis on English with primary language support and lots of parent involvement."
Under the Unz initiative, waivers for bilingual instruction would be allowed only in limited cases: for children who already know English, children with special needs or children older than 10. Only schools with 20 such students at the same grade level whose parents request bilingual instruction would be required to provide it.
Opponents say the initiative is far more restrictive of parent choice than current state law, which requires that parents who want to remove their children from bilingual education be allowed to do so. But those who favor the measure say that despite the law, many parents of limited English students have been prohibited by schools from placing their children in English-only classrooms.
The initiative proposes the use of "sheltered English immersion" in which non-English speakers will be taught English in English, using methods designed for children learning the language.
After several months to a year, Unz said, the children should be ready to move to a regular classroom -- a thesis with which many language acquisition experts disagree.
"With a total immersion strategy, in the first year or so it looks like a child is gaining a lot of English, but then they begin to fall behind. What they've learned is social English, playground English. What they're missing is academic English -- the ability to manipulate abstract concepts in your head," said Duane Campbell, a professor of bilingual education at California State University, Sacramento.
For that reason, bilingual education supporters argue that children should be taught subjects such as math and science in their primary language, so they don't fall behind while learning English.
Because bilingual education has been politicized for so long, people on both sides of the issue often discredit the other side's research as biased.
"We find consistently that dual language instruction provides advantages," said UC Davis Associate Prof. Patricia Gándara, director of the Education Policy Center of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute.
Gándara and other supporters of bilingual education point to studies that show it takes five to seven years to fully learn a language and that primary language instruction does not impede learning English.
But opponents point to their own studies that recommend the use of English immersion.
A 1993 study on bilingual education by the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state watchdog agency, found that most of the academic studies on the topic "are seriously flawed, making it impossible to transfer conclusions about any single program to all programs."
"The single largest research experiment around that's unbiased is the state of California," Unz said. "If you haven't been able to make (bilingual education) work in 25 years, I don't see any evidence you'll be able to make it work down the road."
Said Gándara: "We have had 25 years to figure out how to do it and now we know how to do it. But we haven't had 25 years to implement it because we've spent the time fighting an uphill battle."