Once a solution, bilingual instruction is now the problem

A growing national debate on the value of bilingual instruction in public schools is effectively off-limits in Denver because the city’s school district remains under a federal court order to operate such a program.

Meanwhile, in various states around the country there is a growing controversy over whether bilingual instruction of mostly Spanish-speaking students is of long-term help. Research, for example, shows that the dropout rate for Spanish-speaking children is twice that for children from Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia and many other countries. It also shows that children who are held back in school early and given a chance to master English do better and graduate in higher percentages than do students who have the “benefit” of years of bilingual instruction.

Whatever the merits of these findings, they can’t be readily applied in Denver without the say-so of U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch.

In early July a status conference goes before the judge. A number of important issues are pending. The Congress of Hispanic Educators has asked that the district be held in civil contempt for not adhering to earlier court directives, and the district is considering requests for modifications in existing orders and program policies.

A pretty good case could be made for lifting the order altogether and leaving the district free to tailor its programs without being imprisoned in what amounts to a decade-old, court-ordered straitjacket.

Many Denverites may be surprised to learn that this matter is even still in the courts. Last year, when Matsch officially ended 25 years of court jurisdiction over the school district’s racial policies, he left in place a case brought by the Congress of Hispanic Educators, which had intervened in the desegregation litigation.

The Denver schools operate under a 27-page policy adopted in 1984, concerning “Limited English Proficient Students.” Although some parts of it have clearly never been implemented, it is the district’s guide to this day. It is part of a consent degree approved by the court, which can be modified or lifted only by the court. It is a source of friction with the Congress of Hispanic Educators, which continues to monitor the Denver program and seek data on such things as teacher selection, qualifications and assignment, as well as other related issues. Those 27 pages are the club with which the Congress of Hispanic Educators attack district decisions.

Because of this document, Denver will have to institute new bilingual programs at 28 elementary schools next fall. Some of these programs will be quite small, involving 35 or more students, some much larger. They are made necessary by the fact that under a return to neighborhood school attendance areas the population qualifying for bilingual instruction will be spread out. In prior years it was much more concentrated.

The change in attendance patterns has in some instances quadrupled the number of children who qualify for specialized instruction. Partly this is a result of a discontinuance of busing, partly a result of growing mobility and partly a result of demographic trends and birth rates.

In some cases the district has found the necessary teaching staff on site. Teachers who had been in the bilingual program and left it for regular classrooms have been encouraged to return to a bilingual classroom. In other cases recruitment hasn’t been so easy, and some transfers have had to be made. As of last week the teachers union didn’t know of any grievances that have developed over transfer policies.

Overall there will be 500 bilingual teachers working in Denver next year. An estimated 100 of these, according to Tony Vigil, director of the DPS Bilingual and English as Second Language program, will not yet have qualified for the teaching certificate.

Under a special arrangement mandated by the court and the state education department, these teachers can be employed for up to two years without the certificate as long as they enroll in an in-service program to earn it. These special provisions are made necessary by what amounts to a national shortage of qualified bilingual instructors.

Not surprisingly the Congress of Hispanic Educators takes a back seat to no one in promoting bilingual instruction since many of its members make their living providing that service.

The history of the past 12 years in Denver suggests that there are good and valid reasons, however, to junk or modify much of the earlier consent decree and return more of the decision-making to district officials.

Here are some of issues that parents and taxpayers might want to consider, along with brief comments on each:

The fairness issue. Currently, Spanish-speaking students are treated quite differently than students who have different primary languages. With few exceptions these students from Russia, Cambodia and elsewhere must make do with what is called the ESOL program. ESOL stands for English to Speakers of Other Languages, sometimes also referred to as English as Second Language.

It isn’t bilingual instruction. It is English instruction, but it is offered in smaller groups. It costs more, and it is designed to be a quick transition to normal classroom instruction. In most cases, if the student is of Spanish background and Spanish is spoken in the home, that student is put in a bilingual program. The questions most often asked are why should there be a different assignment policy based simply on the fact that one language is Spanish and another is not? The issue becomes more acute as the district gets more students from Asia and Europe. Coincidentally, one of the provisions of the court order that hasn’t been followed is a command to more actively recruit speakers of other languages. Unsurprisingly, the Congress of Hispanic Educators doesn’t seem concerned about this oversight.

The standards for determining proficiency. Under existing policy, bilingual students are kept in the program until they demonstrate they can (depending on
age) achieve above the 30 or 40 percentile level in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for reading and language. The problem with this is that, by definition, 30 percent or 40 percent of the student body will always be below that level. Why does that result – as it applies to a student of Spanish background – mean they must stay in bilingual instruction?

The lack of competition. Without a rigid court order and a continuing contest between the Congress of Hispanic Educators and the district, there might well be a broader search for other language instruction methods. For example, Christine Rossell, of Boston University examined more than 70 studies of language programs and concluded, “Ninety-one percent of scientifically valid studies show bilingual education to be no better – or actually worse – than doing nothing.”

She also found that by far the most successful approach is a “structured immersion” program in which for a relatively short-period of time students are separated into classrooms “where instruction is in English at a level the students can understand.”

She concludes that it appears not to matter if the instructor has skills in any other language: “While it may be helpful if a teacher knows his or her students’ native tongue, it is probably best for the students if the teacher is not fluent in it because, human nature being what it is, the more proficient a teacher is in a language, the more time he or she will spend teaching it. Thus, contrary to the theory and current practice, I suspect that the better teachers will be those who are more comfortable in English than their students’ native tongue.”

The point here is that in Denver there is a lack of incentive to compare and measure the success of various programs since such a large proportion of the effort is dedicated to traditional forms of bilingual instruction.

English as the official language. This is a controversy all its own, but as bilingual instruction is offered it can either aid in the development of a common language or work against it. In Los Angeles there has been some controversy on the bilingual issue precisely because the district actively discourages the use of English in the home. Its manual and study guide say teachers should not “encourage minority parents to switch to English in the home, but to encourage them to strongly promote development of the primary language.”

This is a prescription not for a common national language but for its
opposite: the abandonment of a common language.

At the minimum, the public might want to give more support to the Denver district as it tries to fashion more flexible policies for providing necessary language instruction for a student enrollment that, in fact, speaks dozens of languages.

The prescription that was written more than 12 years ago as part of an earlier desegregation case is for a perfect guide for the future.

The only group with a positive incentive to maintain it is the Congress of Hispanic Educators, and this is by no means a disinterested group.

Every other group, including the students the bilingual programs were intended to serve, have been given ample reasons during the past 12 years to question the rigid application of its provisions.

It is easily possible to imagine other ways of doing things that might include a larger role for parents and families, and greater authority for individual school committees and administrators to address what, after all, are quite different and special sets of challenges.

Al Knight is Denver Post Perspective Editor.

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