Los Angeles—Of the well-scrubbed children who began their education this fall at Eastman Avenue School in Los Angeles, all but a few learn to read first in Spanish, the only language they know.
Older children here – second or third graders – chatter in Spanish among themselves and readily answer a stranger in polite English. But among kindergartners, English is understood in only two of eight classrooms.
This is how school starts for hundreds of thousands of students across the country every year. How to help them succeed in an English-speaking country has been an open and raging debate for two decades.
Last week, US Secretary of Education William J. Bennett stoked the controversy again, dubbing bilingual education a ”failure.” Mr. Bennett says his department intends to deregulate bilingual education, giving responsibility back to states and localities.
Upwards of 40 languages – including Vietnamese and Punjabi – are spoken by immigrant children in some California schools. More typical are many schools, where Spanish is the predominant native tongue.
Over the last few decades, public schools have responded to the influx of foreign students with various forms of bilingual-education programs. But the programs are usually limited to native Spanish speakers and their effectiveness is uncertain and controversial.
The bilingual-education community, from teachers to state administrators, was stung by Bennett’s announcement. His proposals would have little direct effect on most school districts, but bilingual-education advocates long for public support for their programs. In their view, Bennett is not helping them get it.
”Bilingual education is not what’s keeping the kids from learning English. What does keep students from learning English is flunking them out or making them feel inferior by thrusting them into classes where they don’t understand the language,” says Concepcion Valdez, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Bilingual education has sharpened and refined both its methods and its purpose over the years. But even successful strategies and programs have been undercut because of a severe shortage of trained bilingual teachers.
Few educators still advocate the kind of truly bilingual programs that offer students courses taught in two languages throughout their school career. Many Mexican-American educators once envisioned a society where Spanish speakers could carry the language of their home into school and workplace.
This vision has met strong resistance from many other Americans, who fear the loss of national unity and identity in a country divided by language.
”Our biggest opponents are Hispanics themselves,” says Lionel Rosales, bilingual-education director for Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District. ”People who say, ‘I made it; why can’t they?’ . . . They never look at all those who never made it.”
Many believe bilingual programs are one way to help students make the transition into the mainstream of American society. But the immersion method – putting students in an all-English environment from their first day on – is becoming increasingly popular.
Before bilingual education, the traditional program for these students was to ”sink or swim” in courses taught in English. They either caught up with their English-speaking peers or they were weeded out.
The modern immersion method is more sophisticated. Courses are designed, and teachers specially trained, to teach in a way such that non-English speakers can follow the material to be learned – be it math, history, or sociology – and, at the same time, learn English.
But immersion works best, most educators say, for students who are well educated in their own language, and not all students have that to their advantage.
At Eastman Avenue School kindergarten some teachers teach about half the day in Spanish, half in English, to classes of all native Spanish-speaking kids. About half will be reading in Spanish by the end of the year.
The point is not to teach them to read their mother tongue but to teach them to read. Then, as they learn to speak English, they will have already developed the reading skills necessary, Eastman educators say.
English will be spoken from the start in art, music, physical education, and English as a second language. Later, students will be taught math and science in English. Within three or four years, most students will be in classes taught entirely in English, keeping pace with native English speakers.
Eastman has become a model program for other schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
For bilingual programs in general, the results are notoriously ambiguous and most evaluations inconclusive.
But Eastman’s principal, Mrs. Feinberg, claims that teachers facing classrooms of students that don’t speak English usually resort to an ad-hoc bilingual approach: ”If you’re teaching math and the kids are sitting there looking at you like ‘What is this nice person saying?,’ then you tend to interject a lot (in Spanish).”
But others say, bilingual education fails to integrate students quickly into the American society.