California's Bilingual Education Program Under Fire

Some parents and teachers are attacking California's bilingual education.

LEON HARRIS, Anchor: Critics say bilingual education sometimes is neither, pointing to classes where English is rarely head and where the dropout rates soar. But defenders say that it’s the best way for kids who don’t speak English to ease into the language and get an education. As Mark Burnheimer reports, debate is raging over what’s best for for children and society.

MARK BURNHEIMER, Correspondent: Ever since a 1974 Supreme Court decision, school districts have been searching for the best ways to teach children of immigrants the three R’s while teaching them English at the same time. But some parents and teachers say it’s not working.

SALLY PETERSEN, Teacher: They don’t go to high school. They don’t graduate. Our dropout rate is horrendous. We’re in incredible crisis in this country. I believe bilingual education has a lot to be held responsible for.

MARK BURNHEIMER: Critics like Petersen feel bilingual programs need more emphasis on English. While bilingual education may be all but a mute point in some regions of the country, it’s hardly the case in most large cities such as Los Angeles. Here at the Ninth Street School here in downtown L.A., 95 percent of the students speak Spanish as their primary language.

In some classrooms, students are taught in simplified English with a Spanish translator available to help them. But in other classrooms, English is barely spoken at all. It is these non-English classes that anger bilingual education critics who favor English only or the so-called sink-or-swim approach. But the L.A. city school district defends its program.

JESSIE FRANCO, Assistant School Superintendent: If I were to be placed at a first grade classroom with 30 Korean-speaking students, I would be hard pressed to teach them English by starting to teach them the alphabet, the reading skills in English.

MARK BURNHEIMER: But even some parents of bilingual education students disagree with that.

LENIN LOPEZ, Parent: That’s false. I was thrown in an English-only class and eventually I had- I had to learn some English.

MARK BURNHEIMER: Parents like Lenin Lopez complaint their children speak little or no English even after years of bilingual education. Experts say there’s no perfect system.

CLAUDE GOLDENBERG, Teacher Education Specialist: For some portion of students, sink-or-swim will work. They will swim. But I think the evidence is fairly clear that for a substantial number of students, sink or swim leads to sinking.

MARK BURNHEIMER: Research not withstanding, some parents and teachers insist the best way to improve bilingual education is to make it a little less bilingual. In Los Angeles, Mark Burnheimer for CNN reporting.

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