New test scores from California, where voters abolished bilingual education
two years ago, show sharp progress among non-English speakers – a finding sure to spark fresh debate over how best to teach the children of immigrants.

A report released Tuesday by the California Department of Education shows that standardized test scores for children with limited English skills rose about as much as scores for students fluent in English.

That’s good news to education leaders in South Florida, a region that has largely rejected bilingual education in favor of teaching children primarily in English.

“We make sure that the children speak English,” said Perla Tabares-Hantman, a School Board member in Miami-Dade. “I think that’s why we’ve been successful, and that’s why California has not.”

Most students in Dade’s bilingual education program take lessons in Spanish for only 90 minutes a day. The Broward district limits bilingual study to a few scattered magnet programs. EDUCATION

Opponents of bilingual education are seizing on the California scores as justification for Proposition 227, a measure that revolutionized teaching methods in that state. It shattered the long-held philosophy of teaching immigrant children in their native language for several years before easing them into English.

As expected, California students who aren’t proficient in English scored well below the national average in all areas on the statewide exam. But their scores improved over the 1999 and 1998 levels.

“I’m certainly encouraged,” said Ron Unz, the software millionaire who put Proposition 227 on the ballot. It was approved by 61 percent of the voters in June 1998.

The nationwide retreat from bilingual education saddens many education experts, who contend that the nation is squandering a chance to breed a generation of bilingual adults.

Research shows that bilingual education works when it’s done properly. Translating theory into practice has proven difficult. Years of bilingual study in California yielded scant results.

“We know that children who have early exposure to more than one language have their brain develop in deeper and more diverse ways,” said Patricia Killian, a professor of English for Speakers of Other Languages at Florida International University. “If children are not successful at bilingual education, I’m thinking that it’s the program.”

But Florida’s educational community has never embraced bilingual education. The Broward and Dade school districts favor ESOL, an effort to make lessons taught in English comprehensible to children still learning the language. It relies on such concepts as body language, visual cues and understanding different cultures.

The Broward district has 22,849 children in such programs; Dade has 54,662.

“A good teacher can teach anybody. When you teach [limited-English students], you don’t have to be bilingual,” said Janice Alford, an educational specialist in Broward’s ESOL program. GAINING GROUND

Bilingual education, an approach that requires a teacher to gain fluency in two or more languages, is gaining ground in Dade, but only as a teaching tool for students who already speak English.

Under a plan approved in 1998 by the district’s multilingual task force, students in about 50 Dade schools take language arts lessons in Spanish or French for 90 minutes a day.

But non-English speaking students get most of their instruction in English. They spend about three school years in ESOL classes that stress getting them into the educational mainstream quickly.

“They have had a bilingual veneer,” said Sandra Fradd, a professor at the University of Florida who has studied bilingualism in Dade. “But both district administrators and school administrators would probably prefer to have an ESOL approach – ‘We’re in America, boys.’ ” SCORES HAILED

Education officials in California hailed the new scores as evidence that the move away from bilingual education was wise.

The state released overall results last month. Tuesday’s report gave scores that include breakdowns for limited-English students.

Overall results for 4.7 million students showed increases of several percentage points in nearly every grade and subject, with the largest improvements in the lowest grades, particularly second and third.

“These scores indicate that our focus on improved academic achievement is taking hold for all groups of students,” California Gov. Gray Davis said on Monday. “We still have a long way to go.”

This report was supplemented by Herald wire services.

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