Politics of language

Bilingual debate has Texas twang; Bigger, better impact for kids is being voiced

Inside a Missouri City classroom, peppy Mary Morales explains an English writing assignment to her 12 students from Spanish-speaking families.

The award-winning bilingual education teacher adds a dash of reassurance for Hugo Padron, Jessica Luna and the other fourth-graders.

“Boys and girls,” she says in English, “when we have a plan it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can erase.”

Outside E.A. Jones Elementary and hundreds of other Texas public schools, the political language is not as comforting for bilingual education, a feature of the border state for about 20 years.

U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land – who represents Missouri City, ranks third in the House Republican leadership and was born in the border city of Laredo – last month proposed a law to erase all federal involvement in bilingual
education. DeLay believes the government is “shackling” students in those programs by stalling their introduction to English.

California, which has led the way for the nation on tax revolts and affirmative action, will vote June 2 on a measure to limit bilingual education
to a one-year “immersion” course, with the goal of getting the students to function in school in English.

And in school districts here, bilingual education is changing with or without input from political activists.

Houston Independent School District educators want not only to convert Spanish-speakers to English, but to make all students fluent in both languages. The global economy demands truly bilingual graduates, HISD says, but it acknowledges bilingual education’s time-worn approach is not producing them.

The kind of child served by bilingual education is changing at the same time. Morales said almost all of her students came from Mexico and Central America when she started her job 13 years ago.

“Now it’s 1998 and these are U.S. children,” she said. “They were all born here” to Hispanic immigrant families that don’t speak English.

Bilingual education, combined with the related English as a Second Language program, serves about 450,000 of Texas’ 3.8 million public school students – creating a huge tinderbox for debates involving politics, culture, economics and educational psychology.

Those arguments indeed are taking place, but not as sensationally as in California, where tension over immigration issues infuses any discussion involving the mixture of Anglo and Hispanic cultures.

Regardless of where the tug-of-war about bilingual education takes place, it comes down to a debate over how preschool and elementary schoolchildren can best learn English in school when another language is spoken at home.

As a child, “your brain is functioning in the language you are accustomed to hearing,” said Raquel Gonzales, the Fort Bend district’s bilingual coordinator.

So the standard bilingual education classes in Texas are taught with a transition plan that takes years: Spanish-speaking students get basic subjects, such as math and science, in Spanish so they don’t fall behind, while acquiring English on a gradual basis.

Students with a different “native language” can learn to speak English in a year or two, but it takes five to seven years to read, write and learn academic subjects in English, according to research quoted by local school districts. That is partly why many students stay in bilingual classes from kindergarten through third, fourth or fifth grade.

Beyond elementary school, students who need help with English are switched to ESL classes, which are taught in English for students who began life with any of the 50 or more languages spoken by Texas students.

Like many educators in the bilingual program, Gonzales had personal experiences that led her to her profession. She still remembers being disciplined as a 7-year-old for speaking Spanish to a friend at a Houston elementary school before the days of bilingual education.

“If you accept their culture and their language, that is the key to success,” Gonzales said.

But Elsy Oddo, who favors a rapid immersion into English, has personal stories, too, that led to her stand on the issue. A native of Colombia, she lived in England and Africa and worked as a secretary for the United Nations in Switzerland, acquiring languages while preserving her native Spanish. She has also helped teach English to foreign exchange students paired with her daughter, an HISD high school student. She now publishes a series of English-Spanish newspapers and books in Houston.

“Children learn very quickly; children are like sponges,” Oddo said. “They just absorb everything.”

Like Gonzales, Oddo offered a cultural underpinning for her viewpoint. Giving students English as soon as possible tells them something important about the country they live in, she said.

“Here, if they want to go to work for somebody, if they want to go to university, they have to speak English,” she said.

In separate interviews, Gonzales and Oddo both used the relatively high Hispanic dropout rate as measuring sticks. Gonzales said that without a transitional bilingual education, more students would get frustrated with school and drop out. Oddo said that because Hispanics drop out at a higher rate than other students, it shows that the status quo, including transitional bilingual
education, is not working.

Texans are split about the value of long-term bilingual education, according to a Houston Chronicle poll, and DeLay’s fellow Republican, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, takes a cautious approach to the issue that reflects arguments from both sides.

“We’ve got a lot of first-generation, Spanish-speaking students who come in, and the bilingual program may be just what’s needed to help them transition to the English language,” he told reporters recently.

The governor added that “sometimes the bilingual education establishment tends to lock children within the confines of the bilingual system, thereby slowing progress toward learning to speak English. It ought to be a transition program rather than a program unto itself.”

Advocates on both sides of the debate come armed with studies and test results showing how best to achieve the goal of teaching students to speak English.

Jeffrey Thiel, principal of HISD’s Lantrip Elementary School, where almost half the students are in bilingual classes, concluded in his doctoral thesis that Spanish-speaking students who go through the full transition program are three times more likely to pass 8th grade achievement tests in English than those who did not. He studied 188 students at high schools on Houston’s heavily Hispanic east side.

But national groups like the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes transitional bilingual education, brandish academic studies suggesting that immersion may be best.

In the Houston area, there appears to be no organized opposition to long-term bilingual education. A spokesman for DeLay said the congressman introduced his bill not in response to any complaints from individual parents, but because he believes schools need to pursue bilingual programs of their choice without being tied to the federal government’s purse strings.

In Texas, however, funding for basic bilingual education comes from the state
– $ 112 million a year. Texas schools use another $ 19 million in federal money for extras such as teacher training, programs for Spanish-speaking parents and “dual language” programs where English-speaking and Spanish-speaking children learn both languages together.

HISD says it gets between $ 7 million and $ 10 million in federal money for bilingual education. The Fort Bend school system, in the heart of DeLay’s district, has fewer experimental programs and gets no federal money.

One gauge of local disenchantment with bilingual education is the opt-out rate. While HISD teaches about 35,000 children in bilingual education and 15,000 in ESL programs – the number is growing every year – the parents of another 5,000 students who designate Spanish as their native language removed their children from the bilingual program and placed them into regular English-speaking classes, according the school district.

The success of Spanish-speaking students learning English may depend on encouragement from their parents in addition to what goes on inside the classroom, the veteran teacher said.

“It all depends on what (language) they receive at home,” she remarked. “That is what helps them make the transition earlier.”

In addition to criticism about who goes into the program, bilingual education takes hard knocks on the subject of who gets out – and how fast.

Gayle Fallon, the combative Houston Federation of Teachers president, noted that the state sends schools an extra 10 percent in per-student funding for bilingual enrollment. That extra money discourages administrators from “graduating” Spanish-speaking students to regular classes.

“We have had teachers called in and told you can’t transition all these children you say are ready,” she said. “And then (administrators) give a dollar amount. This isn’t about children; this is about money.”

Jose Hernandez, HISD’s assistant superintendent of multilingual and special programs, denied that funding affects the rate at which students move out of bilingual classes. Principals, teachers and parents follow state law by deciding together whether a student is ready for regular instruction, based on academic performance, he said.

Fallon also criticized the program for being inconsistent: Bilingual classes are taught almost wholly in Spanish at some schools, while English is introduced rapidly at others, she said.

Hernandez acknowledged inconsistencies and said HISD is working to make the program uniform – down to the number of minutes that English should be spoken to Spanish-speaking children at each grade level.

Fallon said most teachers agree with most parents that Spanish-speaking students need a program to move them into English-classes as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Experimenting with the way those students master English can go only so far.

Condit Elementary School placed a few Spanish-speaking children in each English class and gave them special assistance. Principal Carol Kanewske said the children learned English smoothly, without suffering the social segregation that some children feel in bilingual classes.

But HISD rejected the experiment, insisting that Spanish-speaking children need to learn basic skills first in their native language.

As the number of Spanish-speaking students grows in many cities, not enough teachers are certified for instruction in the transitional method. Of the 11,131 teachers staffing the state’s bilingual classes, 4,060 have not completed the full training for that specialty, according to the state Board for Educator Certification. In 1994, HISD was embarrassed by revelations about untrained foreigners being recruited to teach bilingual classes.

But while schools strive to hire teachers who can improve their students’ English skills, the curriculum is undergoing reform in a different direction – at least in HISD.

In documents that cite Houston’s “proximity to Latin American countries” and “the increasing need for a bilingual-biliterate work force,” the district says it wants to continue teaching some courses in Spanish to Spanish-speaking students through high school so they can achieve equally in English and Spanish. At the same time, the district has set out to boost instruction in Spanish, or another foreign language, for English-speaking children.

For Hispanic students in bilingual classes, the new approach means slowing down even further their use of English in the primary grades “so they can develop cognitive skills in both languages,” Hernandez said.

HISD board member Don McAdams, whose adopted children from Peru and Vietnam have always been educated in English, says many Spanish-speaking children founder in middle school because they never got proper English training in their bilingual classes.

The long-term cure, McAdams said, may be the “dual language” programs that HISD is developing at seven elementary schools. In those classes, all children learn English and Spanish equally. But the program is chiefly funded with the kind of federal money imperiled by DeLay’s bill.

“It’s a political football,” McAdams said of bilingual education. “And I have very little hope it will be solved educationally.”

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