Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles examining bilingual education in California. During the coming weeks, CEFA will look at the challenges that local districts and state officials face in trying to educate more than one million school children who are classified as limited-English-proficient
(LEP), including budgetary concerns, the shortage of trained bilingual teachers,
current policy and proposed changes and the success rate in transitioning students from bilingual education classes to mainstream classroom. This week: An overview of the current program.
A quiet storm has been brewing in California for the last two years —
one that pits proponents of native-language instruction against proponents of immersion strategies as the best way to educate the state’s 1.3 million students who are limited English speakers.
The issue is now coming to a head with the introduction of a Senate bill that would expand local authority to come up with new ways to deliver instruction and a proposed ballot initiative that would almost eliminate native-language instruction for limited-English proficient (LEP) students.
What started as a "national experiment" in 1968 (with the passage of the first federal Bilingual Education Act) has become a multi-billion enterprise, with federal, state and local resources totaling $10 billion for bilingual education programs nationwide annually.
Although most believe that bilingual education means that non-English speaking students are taught in both their native language and in English,
many are surprised to learn that a significant portion of LEP children receive the majority of their instruction in their primary language and as little as 30 minutes of English instruction per day.
Massachusetts enacted the first state law mandating that students be taught in their native language in 1971 and California followed suit soon thereafter, with the Moscone-Chacon Bilingual-Bicultural Act of 1976. The law expired in 1987 and was never replaced. The state, however, has continued the program unofficially.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 2.3 million children enrolled in bilingual education programs; of those, 1.3 million attend public schools in California.
Federal dollars account for just 6 percent of the total spent statewide.
The rest of the cost is borne equally by state and local resources, with California spending a total of $4.2 billion annually, as of 1993-94, according to a study by the U.S. English Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Critics — business leaders, bilingual teachers and community activists working on behalf of immigrants — say the "experiment has failed"
and call the results "disastrous" for students, pointing to the California Department of Education’s own statistics which show that, on average, LEP students take five to seven years to transition from bilingual education classes to mainstream classrooms where all subjects are taught in English.
"It’s time we say enough is enough. This is a failed program. It isn’t working. It should be abolished," said Ron Unz, a multimillionaire software entrepreneur from Palo Alto who is spearheading the drive to put an initiative on the June 1998 ballot that would dismantle California’s current practices and require non-English speaking students to receive instruction in English, with only limited help given in their native language.
Backers must gather more than 400,000 signatures by December to place the English for the Children initiative on the June ballot.
Another movement, if somewhat less dramatic, is taking shape in the Legislature in the form of SB 6 — the Firestone-Alpert English Learners Education Reform Act of 1998.
Authored by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone
(R-Buellton), SB 6 would, among other things, require districts to test LEP students on an annual basis to assess both English language and academic skills and report student progress to the CDE and the State Board of Education.
The bill also calls for the development of pupil performance standards for LEP students — much like the statewide standards being developed now by the California Academic Standards Commission. In addition, SB 6 would mandate that if districts could not demonstrate after one year that they are meeting those standards, they must revise their instructional program.
If, after doing so, students are still failing to perform up to the standards,
the state will intervene.
The bill passed the Senate earlier this month on a 25-11 vote and will be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in late August.
Program in chaos
Although almost everyone has an opinion on the success or failure of bilingual education in California, almost no one — including government officials — can point to solid evidence to back up their case.
In fact, the CDE, which is responsible for ensuring district compliance with the current program, was unable to provide statistics to show the progress of LEP students over a period of time, nor could it verify exactly how much money was being spent statewide to educate LEP students annually. Interviews with members of the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson’s staff produced similarly inconclusive responses.
"It’s not that we don’t know what’s going on. It’s that there is a tremendous amount of flexibility at the local level — a tremendous amount of local control," said Henry Der, director of governmental affairs for the CDE in referring to the amount of money spent on, and the success or failure of, bilingual education.
"The statistic cited — $4.2 billion — seems extremely high. But it’s true that we don’t know for certain how much money is being spent.
I believe the state contributes about $319 million," he added.
As to the amount of English instruction students receive, Der said that he doesn’t think that "30 minutes per day is typical overall."
"Again, the program has a great deal of flexibility for how services are delivered. I could cite just as many anecdotal examples that show that most of the classes are taught in English. Surveys have shown that at least 20 percent of LEP students receive no native language instruction at all.
It really depends on the level of literacy these kids come in with,"
According to David Dolson, a consultant in the bilingual compliance unit of the CDE, 44 percent of LEP students are housed in grades K-3. Another 36 percent are in grades 4-8 and 17 percent are in grades 9-12. Two percent of LEP students are "ungraded," Dolson said.
Delivery of bilingual education in California falls under five program headings, with the largest portion of students — 30.2 percent — receiving some English language development (ELD), while receiving all academic subject instruction in their native language.
Nearly 20 percent of LEP students receive ELD in addition to some support in their native language for academic subjects. In this program, a teacher will give instruction in English and a bilingual aide will go over the instruction in the students’ native language either before or after the lesson. Sixteen percent receive both ELD and special help in English with other academic subjects, such as math, science and history, while another 13.5 percent receive English language development only. Twenty percent of LEP students in 1996 received none of the above services, Dolson said.
So how long should it take to move an LEP student from bilingual classes to a mainstream English setting?
"The law is silent on that. It’s an issue of considerable debate.
Research shows that so many factors go into this — the level of schooling that students received in their home country before coming here, for example,
is a big factor. Some students have received great instruction and other students have never been to school. Some students come here very young and others don’t come until they’re in the 9th grade," said Dolson.
"So the rate of development really depends on a student’s previous preparation. Generally, older, well-educated children accomplish the transition in three to four years. Younger, less-educated children take longer — between five to seven years," he added.
Some suggest that’s not good enough.
"Part of everyone’s frustration is that the CDE is in charge of overseeing this program, yet we’re not seeing the kind of success rate we would expect. We don’t advocate either native language instruction or English immersion — we just want to see these kids move into English as soon as possible. And I don’t think that five to seven years can really be called progress," said Wilson spokesman Dan Edwards.
"The real problem with the current system is that there is no accountability for local districts. We’re all for local control, but they’ve got to be able to produce results and document those results," he added.
Der agreed, saying, "Local districts should be held accountable for English language development and they never have been. We’re hoping to address this problem with Senator Alpert’s bill."
Lisa Giroux — who has been studying bilingual education practices in California for more than 2 years as a consultant to Alpert — said that discovering what works and what doesn’t has been difficult.
"You’d think that with 1.3 million children in the system, the state would have a better handle on what’s going on. I think part of the problem is that the CDE hasn’t been asking the right kinds of questions or expecting the right kind of results. In the last 10 years, they’ve been more interested in making sure districts comply with procedures and paperwork, instead of checking the output. And I think there’s finally some recognition about this on everyone’s part," said Giroux.
Giroux stressed that SB 6 would not prescribe one teaching method over another.
"We’re not leaning either way…we’re saying ‘do what’s right for your district, but make sure it works’. Districts would have the flexibility to provide English-only instruction, but whichever way they go, they have to be held accountable. We need to hold both to an equal standard,"