If Ron Unz were a teacher, he’d give bilingual education an “F.”
But he’s not a teacher. He’s a Silicon Valley millionaire who runs a software company.
Still, Unz says he has the answer to a problem educators, lawmakers and researchers have grappled with for decades — how to teach students who don’t understand English. Unz’s answer? Get rid of bilingual education.
Although researchers and educators say Unz’s idea is untested and unproven, he believes it will work. He says too few immigrant children learn English under the current methods, which allow children to take classes in their native language for years and gradually learn English.
Voters will decide Unz’s “English for the Children” initiative on June 2. If it passes, it will have dramatic consequences for the 1.4 million California schoolchildren who are learning English.
Proposition 227 would effectively end bilingual education.
Students who don’t speak English would have about a year to learn the language. Then they’d be put in English-only classrooms. Parents could ask for a waiver under special circumstances.
Critics say it’s ludicrous to expect that in a year a child who knows little or no English can learn the language sufficiently to do well in school.
The initiative is “a classic meat-cleaver approach to a more complex problem,” said Claude Goldenberg, an education professor at California State University, Long Beach. “There is enough evidence bilingual education is effective that it’s absolutely the worst thing in the world to make it illegal.”
Researchers disagree on how long it takes for a child to learn English. Most say it takes at least five years. Some say it can be done in less time.
But there is no program that claims a child can learn the language in a year, said Stephen Krashen, a researcher at the University of Southern California.
“The evidence we have suggests that one year of intensive English is not enough to bring children to the level where they can do grade-level work,” Krashen wrote in an October report criticizing the initiative.
Unz jumped into the bilingual debate after reading about Latino parents who boycotted a public school in Los Angeles two years ago because their children weren’t learning English. After digging deeper, Unz said, he discovered that too few immigrant children are learning English well enough to succeed.
He argues that the state spends far too much money for what he considers dismal results. Besides the state’s normal per-pupil funding, California spent an additional $340.3 million for the 1996-97 school year to educate children with limited-English proficiency. That works out to $256 a year per child. Unz claims the cost is closer to $1 billion, including federal and local funding.
“I think the current system of native language instruction is destroying the educational and economic future of these children,” Unz said.
His “English for the Children” campaign has the support of people like Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Mexican-American teacher in Santa Ana who has fought to end mandated bilingual education, and Jaime Escalante, a Latino immigrant whose success teaching inner-city Latino students was portrayed in the 1987 film “Stand and Deliver.”
“The whole notion that the best way for a child to learn English is that a child spend most or all of their time in Spanish is counterintuititve,” Unz said. “There’s overwhelming evidence it does not work, so that’s why I think we should teach children English by teaching them in English.”
It appears most Californians agree with Unz. A March Field poll showed the initiative had approval from 70 percent of voters. Of Latino voters, 61 percent said they would support it.
A Los Angeles Times poll this month found that 63 percent of all voters, and 50 percent of Latino voters, favor the initiative.
“I feel very strongly that kids should learn in English,” said John Becerra, who spoke only Spanish when he started school in Simi Valley 50 years ago. “We’re not Mexicans anymore. This is our country, and we should speak this language.”
Critics argue Unz knows nothing about immigrant education and is merely using the issue to further his political career. Unz challenged Pete Wilson unsuccessfully in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary.
In their eyes, Unz proposes a one-size-fits-all approach that will never work. Bilingual education may not be perfect, but throwing it out isn’t the answer, they say.
“My fear is that if we’re restricted to only one year of English instruction before we put these kids into a class to sink or swim, too many of them will sink,” said Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools.
Some bilingual supporters fear voters don’t understand the full consequences of the initiative. For instance, when the Times poll asked whether school districts should have more flexibility in deciding how to teach limited-English students, 52 percent of voters said yes — yet the Unz initiative would give districts less flexibility.
One of every four California schoolchildren has limited English skills, according to state figures. School districts use all kinds of methods to teach them.
Some schools put those children into English classes but give them extra help. Others teach those children in their native languages while building up their English skills. Still others put Spanish speakers in a class with English speakers and teach them both languages.
“A lot of the time, we talk about bilingual education as if it were a homogeneous, uniform program or procedure and, in reality, it’s lots of different things that fall under the heading of bilingual education,” Goldenberg said. “And that, of course, just adds to the confusion.”
The Ventura County Star surveyed 18 local school districts about their programs for students with limited-English skills. The surveys revealed:
n Ventura County’s school districts use a wide array of methods to teach limited-English students. The approach varies by district, by school, and even within the same school.
n School districts lack long-range evidence to show how limited-English students, both current and former, do compared to native English speakers. It reflects a statewide problem.
n Comparing school districts proves difficult because they don’t place and test children with limited English skills the exact same way. They also use slightly different criteria for deciding when a child has mastered English.
Many programs for children
Public educators have a mantra: “local control.” It’s the belief that individual school boards and districts can better decide what works for their communities than can politicians in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.
That belief holds in all areas of education, including how to teach immigrant children. Within Ventura and Los Angeles counties, districts decide what to offer based upon educational philosophy, demographics, logistics and history.
The Las Virgenes Unified School District in L.A. County, for example, does not offer bilingual education. Children with limited English skills are put in English classrooms but spend time outside class with an aide for 30 or 40 minutes a day.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Oxnard School District. Students with limited English skills start out learning their academic subjects in their native language — mainly Spanish — with art, music and physical education in English. Each year, they learn more and more in English until they’re in all- English classrooms. The transition takes place over about six years.
Why the different approaches?
Fewer than 4 percent of Las Virgenes’ students are not fluent in English. Of those, only a third speak Spanish. The rest speak everything from Korean to Farsi to Russian. But in Oxnard, half of all students do not speak English fluently, and 99 percent of those speak Spanish.
“This approach works best in our district because of our small number and our variety of languages,” said Cathy Meininger, who coordinates Las Virgenes’ limited-English programs and teaches at Yerba Buena School in Agoura Hills.
The same could be said of Oak Park Unified, where just 50 students aren’t fluent in English but speak one of more than a dozen languages. Oak Park uses an approach similar to Las Virgenes’.
“We could never run a bilingual program. It’s not even feasible to do something like that with the number of languages and how they’re spread out over the schools,” said Cathy Skiba, Oak Park’s director of pupil services.
Nor would Oak Park’s approach work in Oxnard, said Stephanie Purdy, Oxnard School District’s manager of English Language Development.
“Our cup runneth over,” Purdy said, referring to the 7,000-plus students who are learning English. “Those kids need one-on-one support, and with our large numbers you can’t do it. We have to have a full bilingual program.”
What districts offer also reflects educational philosophy. In the Conejo Valley Unified School District, most limited-English students are taught in English.
“In our community, English is the predominant language. We’re helping them be successful in the culture of our community if they learn English as quickly as possible,” Assistant Superintendent Richard Simpson said.
Nor does every district offer a single approach. Ventura Unified, for example, has everything from Sheridan Way School, where nearly two-thirds of the students are learning English, to Pierpont School, which has less than 1 percent of those students.
So the district offers bilingual education at the five elementary schools with the most limited-English students but sheltered English instruction at the other schools.
Data hard to come by
If every school could prove its programs for limited-English students work, California probably wouldn’t be having a fiery debate over bilingual education. But that evidence is hard to come by, and, experts say, it’s a statewide problem.
About the only measure of success available statewide is the “redesignation rate” — the percentage of limited-English students who learn the language well enough to be considered proficient in English.
Unz has built much of his campaign on these numbers, declaring that bilingual education has a “95 percent failure rate” because only 5 percent of students each year are redesignated. According to the state Department of Education, however, the latest figure — for 1997 — is 6.7 percent.
But the rate counts all limited-English students, and only 30 percent of them are in a bilingual program.
Nor do the rates show how long a student has gone to school. So the child who started in a U.S. school in kindergarten is counted just like the child who came in 10th grade. And some districts won’t declare students proficient in English until they’ve been in a bilingual program for three or more years.
Plus, districts set their own criteria for classifying students. They’re all within state guidelines, but they vary slightly. Districts have used different tests to classify students. Sometimes one district will require a different score on a test than another district.
For instance, students in the Hueneme School District had to score at least in the 33rd percentile on the Terra Nova test to be reclassified as English-proficient. Oxnard School District required a score in the 36th percentile. Las Virgenes required the 36th percentile, too, but on a different test — the ITBS.
“They’re relatively comparable, but they’re still different,” Oxnard’s Purdy said. “You could be redesignated in one district and not the other.”
There are other ways of measuring success besides looking at the number of students who are reclassified as English-proficient.
The Star asked school districts for standardized test scores, high school graduation rates, dropout rates and grade-point averages over the past five years. The Star asked districts to provide those figures for English-only students, current limited-English students and limited-English students who had been redesignated as proficient in English.
No district was able to provide all of the information requested. Only a few districts provided part of it.
It’s the same elsewhere in the state. A 1992 study commissioned by the state Legislature found that data on limited-English students were so lacking it was virtually impossible to say how those children performed in school.
What can the data reveal?
The Oxnard Union High School District provided 1997 grade-point averages for each school. It showed that limited-English students had lower GPAs than students as a whole, but those who had been redesignated as fluent in English did better than students as a whole.
Oxnard Union can’t take all the credit, because students spend kindergarten through eighth grade in one of seven feeder districts. But it’s the kind of data that experts say all districts should keep.
School districts can’t take all the blame, officials say.
“It’s not an excuse, but if the state doesn’t ask for it, they’re not going to do it,” said Cliff Rodrigues, director of bilingual education for the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Office.
That’s true, because collecting and analyzing data costs a lot, and districts don’t get extra money to do it, said David Dolson, manager of the Language Policy and Leadership Office of the state Department of Education.
And the state can’t require it unless the Legislature passes a law requiring it.
The state is calling for more information on limited-English students as part of an overall effort to hold schools more accountable.
In a draft report, the department “strongly recommends” that districts collect more data on limited-English students.
There’s a lot to be considered
Researchers, educators and others on both sides of the issue agree that more than bilingual programs has to be considered when judging whether children are being properly educated.
Educators ask: Is it fair to compare the academic success of a child with a stay-at-home mother and who lives in an affluent district such as Conejo Valley Unified to a child in a poorer district in Oxnard, where both parents work and may not have high school degrees, let alone speak English?
“To be honest, if you look at our English-only reading scores, they’re going to be lower than Conejo’s, and that’s the socioeconomic thing,” Oxnard’s Purdy said.
A Ventura Unified study found that children in bilingual programs were 21U2 times more likely to be poor than other students.
Another factor is the amount of experience a teacher has. If a bilingual program isn’t working, is it because the program is bad, or do you just need a better teacher?
In the end, some educators and researchers say, the current debate over bilingual education focuses on the wrong questions.
Research shows that immigrants are learning English faster than previous generations, regardless of the type of program, said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor.
“What we need to worry about is why, despite their English fluency, so many language minority students are not succeeding academically and socially,” Hakuta said.
He points to high poverty rates, poorly funded schools and teachers lacking experience.
What we should be asking is how to overcome those barriers, he said. In comparison “arguing over the number of minutes every day that students should be taught in English or in their native language is unimportant.”
Career: Self-made Palo Alto software executive.
Marital status: Single.
Claim to fame: Author of the “English for the Children” initiative, which, if passed, would end bilingual education in California schools.
Endorsements: Initiative endorsed by U.S. English and the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Education: Harvard-educated, dropped out of Stanford University’s theoretical physics Ph.D. program to head for Wall Street in 1987.
Political history: Challenged Gov. Pete Wilson for the Republican nomination in 1994. Received 34 percent of the vote.
Personal history: Unz’s mother spoke Yiddish when she moved to this country from Russia and learned English without bilingual education.
Interesting note: Marched against California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187.
Goal: If initiative passes in California he hopes to push similar national legislation.
Quote: “I don’t see why it’s controversial to teach little children English.”