New results on standardized tests in California pose an important question for Texas and other states about the best way to educate non-English speaking schoolchildren: bilingual education or immersion? In California,
Spanish-speaking students enrolled in English-only — or immersion —
courses made striking gains over the past two years on reading, math and other tests. In some cases, those students outperformed their peers in traditional bilingual programs, which instruct students in their native language while gradually introducing them to English. Students must receive a waiver to enroll in a bilingual program.
Those results should not be ignored, though they require further study to determine whether smaller class sizes also contributed to academic gains.
But before immersing Texas’ 556,000 public school students who speak limited or no English in the cold waters of English-only courses, consider that Texas’ bilingual programs generally are working. Indeed, Texas bilingual education programs offer lessons for California, Arizona, Colorado, New York and other states wrestling with the issue.
In those states, horror stories abound about children languishing in bilingual classes for most — if not all — of their school careers, even reaching high school unable to speak, read or write English. Those kids no doubt are on a slow track to graduation or to college, but on a fast track to street-sweeping. In the United States, English proficiency and literacy are essential. Without such skills, students are destined to low-level jobs,
poverty or worse.Texas lessons
In Texas, if they begin their bilingual studies in kindergarten, most non-English speaking students move from bilingual education to regular courses by fourth grade. It is rare for children to reach middle or high school and remain in bilingual courses, says Maria Medina Seidner, director of bilingual education for the Texas Education Agency.
State law requires school districts to offer bilingual education in elementary grades if 20 or more students in any one grade speak limited or no English . But schools are not required to offer bilingual education beyond fifth grade. After that, schools are required to provide an English as a Second Language program, which instructs students primarily in English with some of their native language used to reinforce lessons.
Last spring , more than half of third-graders who spoke limited English took the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test in English; three out of four passed . Those students — now fourth- graders — are in regular education courses this fall.
The third-graders who took the TAAS in Spanish had about the same passage rates. Most of those students will stay in bilingual education this year,
but will shift to regular courses in fifth grade. Local control
One size does not fit all. That is why Texas allows its 1,229 districts to design their own bilingual programs. The state holds districts accountable for results by testing all students on the TAAS; non-English speakers take either a Spanish or English TAAS, plus a reading proficiency test measuring annual progress in English.
Most districts, such as Austin, have chosen traditional bilingual programs.
Some of them , including Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, are among the best in the state. But others — dissatisfied with traditional bilingual programs — are offering cafeteria plans.
In Houston, the district offers its limited-English speakers everything from immersion courses — with virtually no native- language instruction — to traditional bilingual programs. The district requires at least 30 minutes of English in pre-kindergarten and 1 1/2 hours in other grades.
Corpus Christi not only offers traditional bilingual programs, but two-way education in which Spanish and English have equal time. English-speaking kids are immersed in Spanish half the day, while Spanish-speakers are immersed in English.
By allowing local districts and educators to answer the question of what works best for their students — and keeping bilingual education out of the political process — Texas has avoided the cultural wars waged in California. Bilingual education was outlawed there two years ago. Meanwhile,
Texas has crafted a bilingual education system that is doing exactly what it is supposed to do — transition students to English while strengthening their basic skills.