Gloria Matta Tuchman, poster teacher for the English-first movement in California, says the performance of her students is the best argument for ending bilingual education in the state’s polyglot public schools.
When visitors come to her class, Matta Tuchman asks her first-graders to drop what they are doing and read aloud. The youngsters, most from Spanish-speaking families, oblige with a demonstration of their budding English skills. The dignitaries come away impressed.
Critics say such scenes offer little proof for Matta Tuchman’s assertion that children from any language background will advance further and faster if they are taught just in English from the start.
But the veteran Santa Ana teacher, now stumping for a proposal to dismantle California’s bilingual programs, knows that image matters in this emotional debate.
“I love showing off my classroom. I want people to actually see what goes on,” Matta Tuchman said. “What I’m saying is true. I have not been lying.”
Educators have long been sharply divided over bilingual education. Backers say that many students who grew up without English need lessons in their own tongue while they are learning the nation’s dominant language. Opponents say that approach shunts students into a segregated track that fails to give them critical English skills.
Matta Tuchman has made a name for herself in California on the issue.
She is the quotable Latina teacher who prescribes English, English and more English for a district where most children enter school speaking Spanish.
Though widely identified as an “English-only” advocate, Matta Tuchman says she dislikes that label because of the connotation that “you cannot speak any other language than English.” Instead, she calls herself an advocate for English literacy.
Matta Tuchman, 55, has been spreading the word for years. She says she began with a simple desire to help children in Santa Ana Unified School District. But she also has shown political aspirations. For many years she was a school board trustee in Tustin. In 1994, as a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, she finished fifth in a field of 12 with a lightly funded campaign.
Now she has deep-pocket support and a national spotlight. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, a maverick Republican and multimillionaire, has teamed with Matta Tuchman, also a Republican, to sponsor a proposed June 1998 ballot measure that would require instruction in English for the 1.4 million California students who are not fluent in the language. Parents who want their children to get bilingual education would have to ask for it.
Unz is using his own funds to help gather the 433,269 signatures of registered voters needed by November to qualify the initiative for the June ballot.
The “English for the Children” initiative, launched last month in Los Angeles, comes as bilingual advocates are on the defensive.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is seeking to rewrite regulations that favor the use of native languages for most students who are still learning English. In addition, four Orange County school districts have won permission in the past two years to scrap bilingual education. The latest, Orange Unified,
began its English-intensive program last week after school board members pronounced bilingual teaching a failure.
State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), sponsor of legislation that would allow school districts more freedom to choose how to teach children who are not fluent in English, said the political climate in California favors an overhaul of bilingual education. She said the question is whether reform will come from the Unz-Matta Tuchman initiative–which she believes will qualify for a vote–or what she called “sensible” legislation.
Most state political leaders are steering clear of the proposed initiative.
State schools chief Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, would not comment. Dan Edwards,
a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, said the Republican chief executive has no position.
Edwards acknowledged that Matta Tuchman’s profile is rising as her proposal receives publicity in newspapers across the nation. “Having taught,
and being Hispanic herself, she makes a persuasive argument,” Edwards said. “She’s been railing against [bilingual education] for years without as much exposure as she’s got now.”
Matta Tuchman’s foes criticize her as a misguided fanatic and say she is exploiting ethnic tensions in a manner reminiscent of Propositions 187 and 209. Those measures, approved by voters in 1994 and 1996, sought to bar certain public services to illegal immigrants and curb state affirmative action.
“For Latinos, we see this as three in a row,” said Theresa Bustillos of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which opposes the Unz-Matta Tuchman initiative. “You can’t help but think this is going to continue to divide the state.”
Matta Tuchman and Unz, who was an early opponent of Proposition 187,
deny that their measure is anti-immigrant. Matta Tuchman says she voted for the controversial 1994 proposition but would probably vote differently on it now.
Matta Tuchman points out that she was honored in 1988 by a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens as “woman of the year”
for her work in education–though officials of the organization say they oppose her initiative.
She is known as a relentless advocate. One former political opponent,
Trustee Jonathan W. Abelove of the Tustin Unified School District, recalled that Matta Tuchman showed up on his doorstep on Mother’s Day in 1994 to hand-deliver a stack of anti-bilingual documents.
With school out for the summer, Matta Tuchman receives visitors at her Lemon Heights home in the foothills overlooking Santa Ana and Tustin.
She says she understands the difficulties faced by poor minority families.
She was born in Pecos, Texas, to Mexican American parents who earned a living as migrant laborers and later started a restaurant. Matta Tuchman jokes that she was not born on the right side of the tracks but actually “on the tracks” because she occasionally traveled on a boxcar as an infant while her father worked for a railroad.
Matta Tuchman says her parents insisted on speaking English with her as she was growing up. She picked up Spanish from her surroundings and recently took language classes in Mexico.
“I love being bilingual,” she said. “I think it’s a true asset.”
Since she became an elementary teacher in Santa Ana in 1967, Tuchman says, she has never used Spanish textbooks or anything more than bits of oral Spanish in the classroom. She has asked for the students with the least background in English and has taught them with a technique known as “sheltered immersion.”
That means students are given visual or other aids to help with English words they do not know–for instance, pictures of coins in a mathematics lesson or pictures of mountains in a geography lesson. Many bilingual advocates contend that such students would be better served by lessons based on their own language and supplemented with English vocabulary drills until they are ready to move into full English instruction.
Matta Tuchman and her colleagues at Taft Elementary have kept the school an English-immersion oasis in an area with a growing Spanish-speaking population.
In 1985, Matta Tuchman and other teachers refused a principal’s order to convert to a bilingual format. Spurred in part by Matta Tuchman, parents mobilized to keep the school as was. The teacher stayed, and the principal left.
“He spun and crashed and burned,” said Bill Hart, Taft’s principal for the past eight years. “Poor guy.”
Hart said no parents have ever asked him to put their children in bilingual classes, though most Santa Ana elementary schools offer them. He said the school often has a waiting list for enrollment.
Matta Tuchman says Taft shows what other schools could do if allowed to convert to English immersion. Its students routinely outperform their Santa Ana peers in standardized tests.
But Taft has some demographic advantages.
About 36% of Taft students are classified as “limited English proficient,”
less than half the average for Santa Ana elementary schools. The campus also draws from a neighborhood more prosperous than the city as a whole.
Santa Ana district officials praise Matta Tuchman’s teaching. But they say many students are excelling, including those in bilingual programs.
They cite Heninger Elementary, named this year as a California “distinguished school.” Nine out of 10 Heninger students are not fluent in English,
and the school has an intensive bilingual program.
Heninger Principal Kathy Sabine said of Matta Tuchman’s proposal: “Don’t make me do it your way, and I won’t make you do it mine. Let me do what I know is working with my kids.”
Yet to be seen is how parents and voters–two distinct blocs–will respond to the proposed ballot initiative. Matta Tuchman says she expects both will flock to her side.
But Kathi Jo Brunning, an official in the Santa Ana Parent-Teacher Assn.,
says the initiative is prompting deep concern among some parents, especially those who can only follow their children’s schoolwork through Spanish.
“Our first impression of it is not favorable,” she said. “It’s a drastic move. There is a definite fear.”
Gloria Matta Tuchman, a teacher in the Santa Ana Unified School District,
says students are better off without bilingual education. Her school, Taft Elementary, is one of the few in the district that does not offer bilingual classes. Instead, it uses English immersion to teach students who aren’t fluent in the language. Here are reading scores for fifth-graders on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, administered in English, plus the percentage of students at each school who qualify for subsidized lunches and are classified as “limited English proficient.” District officials say school demographics are a key factor in test performance.
CTBS Reading Comprehension, Spring 1997
|School||Percentile||price lunch||% LEP|
Source: Santa Ana Unified School District