We are seeing the first stirrings of a movement in California away from the current inflexible approach to bilingual instruction in the public schools. Several school districts in Orange County are at the cusp of what could eventually develop into a significant trend. The audacious idea is to teach English by, well, teaching English, not some other language. And by teaching it in English.

Orange Unified is the latest school district to join this departure from the status quo. On Thursday, the district’s trustees voted 6-0 for a plan under which students from non-English-speaking backgrounds will be taught in the nation’s predominant tongue.

Support faculty would still be available for children with language difficulties, and there would be after-school tutoring, probably on a voluntary basis.

Although the Westminster District and the Magnolia School District in Orange County have already won permission for similar policies, Orange Unified has to make its case to the state Department of Education. That centralized bureaucracy still has the last word, so it is premature to say that Orange will be able to follow through on its plan.

The necessity to jump through these hoops is unfortunate, because the proposal isn’t really revolutionary, radical or untried.

It would certainly not have seemed revolutionary to public-school teachers during earlier eras of large-scale immigration into this country. English immersion was the norm, for instance, in New York City’s schools through the first decades of this century. Wave on wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and from other locales where English was an exotic tongue, deposited their children in New York’s classrooms, or in schoolhouses elsewhere throughout America, there to be taught the scholastic basics _ in the language of their new land.

The last 20 years or so have brought us something different.

Under the standard bilingual method in California, students from Latino homes are taught in Spanish at least during the early grades. In some schools they’re even given lessons on how to improve their Spanish before any attempt is made to introduce them in a serious way toEnglish.

How has this approach fared in moving children into the language and societal mainstream? It is hard to make a judgment with statistical certainty, because there is a curious dearth of studies trying to quantify results.

Four years ago, when the state’s Little Hoover Commission, a government-efficiency watchdog panel, held a hearing examining the issue, an instructive exchange occurred with representives of the state education department. The department could offer next to no facts about the success or failure rates of bilingual education. It was almost as if a decision had been made not to know.

Meanwhile, there is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that the system has problems. Most prominently, perhaps, there was the case of L.A.’s Ninth Street School, located in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, where many of the Latino parents _ garment-industry workers for the most part _ raised a roar last year because their children weren’t learning America’s language.

It took free-of-charge assistance from the law firm of L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, but the parents were finally able to win permission from the state to have their kids schooled in English rather than Spanish.

Another interesting case story is that of Taft Elementary School in the Santa Ana district. There, English immersion, along with after-school tutoring, has been in place for some time. Is the approach a success? Well, the school, with a 60 percent Latino student body, is one of the top performing in the district, coming in just behind Santa Ana’s vaunted “fundamental” schools on standardized math and English tests.

It is significant that in Orange, a school board that often divides along ideological lines voted unanimously to move away from non-English instruction. This suggests that the consensus of education insiders may be beginning to shift in the direction of a more flexible, more realistic philosophy that emphasizes instruction in the basics.

To be sure, it would be wrong to assume that any one teaching formula is best for every student. The proposed Orange program, for instance, acknowledges there will be kids with special needs.

That’s the purpose of offering tutorial time andhaving instructional assistants on hand in the classroom.

Ultimately, the fact that children differ from one another _ that there is no standard model child, no one “size,” no single set of needs _ is another argument for school choice, including assisting parents to choose private schools that meet their situation, if they desire. Such pluralism would allow for a variety of programs to match the variety of young people who must be served.

Until that day, however, school officials owe it to their customers, and to all taxpayers, to monitor their programs to see what works and what fails too often. Bilingual instruction as practiced in California seems to have been failing. More emphasis on learning English quickly sounds to our ears like the language of common sense.



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