Teacher fights bilingual education

If you want to teach English to a child whose native language is Spanish, you can’t do it by putting that child in a classroom where he’ll be taught in Spanish, says a California teacher who’s leading a crusade to reform bilingual

That’s not to say that Sally Peterson, founder and president of Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD), is a foe of bilingualism. She believes everyone should be bilingual – fluent in two languages. But she is an outspoken critic of a teaching technique called bilingual education.

“I thought at first it made sense, but it’s gone too far,” said Mrs. Peterson. “We’re on the wrong track and the public doesn’t understand it and most politicians don’t understand it.”

The 25-year-old Bilingual Education Act is up for reauthorization this year, and Mrs. Peterson, a Los Angeles teacher for 30 years, hopes to persuade Congress to revise it.

She wants Congress to drop the requirement that 75 percent of federal grants to teach English to non-native speakers go to programs that use extensive native language instruction – Transitional Bilingual Education.

That leaves only 25 percent of the grants (up from 4 percent before 1988,
however) for alternative instructional programs such as English as a second language, which does not require the teacher to instruct the child in his native language.

“Bilingual education is a Spanish language and cultural maintenance program that is damaging more than just innocent children,” Mrs. Peterson said. “It’s not about teaching English at all; it’s about political power, pure and simple.”

At a symposium yesterday in the Capitol, scholars, teachers and researchers echoed Mrs. Peterson’s criticism of Transitional Bilingual Education as a method that has failed.

“Even my students question it,” said Carole Nevarez, a Los Angeles teacher who is fluent in Spanish and teaches 32 Hispanic children in a full bilingual program. “Five-year-old Grecia Guttierrez asked me how they could learn English if all I did was speak Spanish. She asked me to speak to her in English.”

But the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, along with other Hispanic organizations that support native-language instruction, thinks Mrs. Peterson and her group are dead wrong.

“Her suggestion that the 75 percent be lifted would result in school districts opting for the cheapest way, which would be a total-immersion program
– sink or swim,” said Mario Moreno, director of the Washington office of the lobbying organization. “We fear the outcome would be higher dropout rates than we have now.”

At Glenwood Elementary School in Sun Valley, Calif., where Mrs. Peterson teaches kindergarten, she has been picketed and vilified because she no longer believes the bilingual education dogma.

“The original philosophy was to teach the child in his native language, two to three years at longest, until the child becomes literate in English,” she said. “Over the years, this has become a business with a vested interest because if the child learned quickly, the schools lost funding.

“We get a minimum of $350 per child in bilingual education,” she said. “That’s a combination of state and federal money. Every limited-English-proficient child is worth $350. If they exit the program in three years, the schools lose millions.”

Today youngsters spend five to six years in the program, she said.

“Immigrant children who may not be literate in their own language are already at risk,” she said. “I think our obligation is not to spend years working on their native language, but put our energies on teaching them English. After 25 years of bilingual education the Hispanic dropout rate hasn’t improved.”



An overview of the nation’s federally funded bilingual education programs.

TRANSITIONAL BILINGUAL EDUCATION: Makes use of the students’ native languages for instruction. Phases in English on a limited basis.

ALTERNATIVE INSTRUCTIONAL: Structured English language instruction, such as the English as a second language method used most often in Washington area schools. Native language instruction not required.

DEVELOPMENTAL BILINGUAL EDUCATION: Structured English language instruction and instruction in a non-English language. Classes composed of equal numbers of native English language pupils and limited English proficient pupils.

ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE: Provides funding for exemplary model programs that use various instructional methodologies.

FAMILY ENGLISH LITERACY: For adults and out-of-school youths. Instruction may be in English or native language.

SPECIAL POPULATIONS: Serves preschool, special education and gifted and talented programs that are preparatory or supplementary to other language acquisition programs.

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