State Expands Schools' Choices on Bilingual Education Focus shifts from methods to results

School districts will have greater freedom to choose from several approaches to bilingual education, according to a revised policy adopted by the state Board of Education yesterday.

In addition, the state will shift its attention from the way that school districts teach students with different native languages to the results schools get in teaching such pupils. Rather than quibble over methods, the state is shifting its focus to what counts: how much the students are learning.

Under the guidelines handed down yesterday, school districts can choose their own methods for teaching the 1.2 million California students with limited or no English skills — as long as the districts can prove the students are meeting basic educational goals for all students.

”By law, it is required that we teach all students subject matter and if they don’t speak English, then we have to find a way to teach them,” said Susie Lange, spokeswoman for the State Board of Education.

About one in four California public school students is not a native English speaker, according to state figures.

Even though the state maintains that the most effective method is to teach students in their native language, the revised policy makes it easier for school districts to adopt a variety of options — including English-only instruction, immersion classes or combinations of strategies, Lange said.

”In the past, if you asked school districts, they would say that we’ve placed road blocks in the way of their using options,” Lange said. Instead of pushing native language instruction, the state is giving districts the autonomy to come up with their own best plans. School districts will also determine their own ways to measure students’ progress.

Lange said that for the first time since 1987, the board began to reexamine its bilingual education policy last November. The revised policy is the result of months of rancorous public debate between those who favor an English-only state and those who want immigrant children to have the chance to be taught in their native languages.

”There has been a lot of controversy,” Lange said. ”It got caught up in Proposition 187 and a growing U.S. movement for English-only and these things have caused controversy over bilingual education.”

In San Francisco, a range of methods, including teaching foreign languages to native English speakers, are used to try and raise the language skills of all students living in this polyglot city, said Maria Teresa Gonzalez, the San Francisco Unified School District’s director of bilingual education.

”I believe that for San Francisco, second-language acquisition and development is a priority,” said Gonzalez, who came from a school district in San Diego and started her new job in San Francisco just two weeks ago. ”We are devoted to creating programs to further that end — programs for English language learners, second language learners, classes in the primary language and classes where the teacher uses English at the student’s level of understanding.”

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