Bilingual Education Battle

Increase in students who speak little or no English heightens debate on how language will be used in the classrooms

Evangelina Cortez sees herself in the students she visits in bilingual education classes.

A chat with a child such as Zaragoza Elementary School kindergartner Veronica Ramirez evokes more than an educator’s response to a student’s needs. For Ms. Cortez, the visit takes her back to when she, too, struggled with the anxieties normally associated with being a first-grader – worries made only worse by her not speaking English.

Today, Ms. Cortez is the assistant superintendent in charge of the Dallas Independent School District’s Multilingual Education Department. She works to improve the education of the nearly 48,000 children – one-third of the district’s 154,985 students – whose native language is not English.

“I had all the same experiences that these kids will have, the alienation, the segregation . . .,” she said. “When I go into a classroom, I remember all the times I was sad or frustrated.”

Ms. Cortez said she thinks about those times as she coordinates the district’s bilingual education program.

“We want all children to be involved,” she said. “We have to find a way to do that.”

The challenge before Ms. Cortez is the challenge nationwide as the United States wrestles with growing numbers of children who start school knowing little or no English. According to the U.S. Department of Education, roughly 2.8 million of the nation’s elementary and secondary students are limited-English proficient (LEP), a number that doubled during the 1990s.

Department officials expect that rate of increase to continue.

Dallas school district officials predict that 50 percent of the district’s students by 2003 will be LEP students. That rate of growth will have the district’s recruiters out in force at the upcoming National Association of Bilingual Education convention scheduled to begin Tuesday at the Dallas Convention Center.

The increase in LEP students alone has administrators scrambling to keep up. But higher than normal dropout rates among bilingual students, coupled with a growing political backlash against immigrants and the languages they speak, have sparked debate about what form bilingual education should take – or if it should exist at all.

The movement opposing bilingual education has taken hold in Colorado, Massachusetts and California, the latter of which has more children in such programs than any other state. California voters will decide on June 2 whether to abolish all bilingual education programs in the state.

Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a national group opposing bilingual education, said the 30-year “experiment” in bilingual education has failed.

“If I were a parent of an LEP child, I’d want that child in an English-intensive program from day one,” she said, adding that bilingual education does students little favor. “It’s a disservice, especially to Hispanic kids. The only kids that get stuck in bilingual programs, it seems, are Hispanic youngsters.”

According to a 1995 Texas Education Agency report, the dropout rate for the state’s bilingual education students is 3 percent, compared to 1.8 percent for the total student average. The Dallas school district’s bilingual education dropout rate is 2.4 percent.

One of the problems critics and proponents have when debating bilingual education is defining what they’re debating. Bilingual education takes many forms and is carried out in many ways, but usually falls into one of three forms – immersion, transitional or developmental – and each form, people on both sides say, has its problems.

Immersion programs, often called the “sink or swim” approach, call for all students to learn in English only, although LEP students are given extra training in English. Schools don’t have to hire as many bilingual teachers, but a classroom teacher may have to overcome the difficulties of several languages being spoken in his or her class.

Transitional programs provide intensive English instruction, but teach other subjects in a student’s native language. The intent is for a student to learn solely in English by the time he or she reaches high school. But schools must hire hard-to-find multilingual teachers, and sometimes at a higher rate of pay. The Dallas district, for example, includes a $ 3,000 stipend for bilingual teachers. Further, critics say, students learn English at a much slower rate and never fully integrate.

Developmental programs aim to preserve students’ native languages, using them to then learn English. Critics charge that students in these programs never learn English and are simply graduated to make room for future classes.

Ms. Cortez has implemented variations of each form during the 20 years she has been involved with bilingual education as both teacher and administrator. She said the Dallas district practices an “additive” program, a form of developmental bilingual education.

For example, in elementary school bilingual education classes, children develop their language skills in Spanish during the morning, then switch to English in the afternoon. The idea is that by the time they finish high school they will be fluent in both languages.

“When you look at U.S. corporations, they really value that second language,” she said. “But some of these kids don’t have a foundation in their native language to speak it properly, so they don’t have what they need to learn to speak proper English. We don’t want them learning playground English.’ We want them to be able to speak well in a courtroom or medical school.”

Bilingual education proponents such as Ms. Cortez say this approach works if taught properly. But critics charge that any form of bilingual education won’t work because students don’t spend all of their time learning in English. Each side has research supporting its claims.

Both sides agree that bilingual education will need more resources if it’s going to help students at all.

The Center for Equal Opportunity touts research by Christine Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University. In her study “Is Bilingual Education an Effective Educational Tool?”

she says a “structured immersion” program is the most effective.

She defines that as a class consisting entirely of LEP students learning all subjects in English only, with the teacher speaking in a different language only as a last resort.

Ms. Rossell’s study further says that transitional bilingual education is far worse than the other forms. In her study, students in transitional programs performed worse 83 percent of the time in learning reading and 38 percent of the time in learning math.

Other critics say school administrators too often place students in bilingual classes simply because they have Hispanic surnames.

Fernando Vega, a former school board member in Redwood City, Calif., said he became active in the movement opposing bilingualeducation after having to fight the local school system to put his six English-speaking children in nonbilingual classes.

“I told my eldest son to sign up for college-prep courses – algebra, history, honors English – his first day as a high school freshman. When he came home, the counselor had rewritten his schedule, putting him in an ESL English-as-a-Second-Language class and giving him remedial courses,” Mr. Vega said. “When I challenged the counselor, he said Mexican parents don’t want their kids to be too educated, because they won’t be as close. I was furious.”

Bilingual proponents say they can point to other studies showing that bilingual education works if implemented properly, but caution that there hasn’t been enough research. Most point to a 1991 study by Dr. David Ramirez, a language researcher at California State University-Long Beach. Dr. Ramirez concluded that immersion programs retard students’ learning in nonlanguage courses while failing to teach English any better.

Dr. Cheryl Wilkerson, a University of Texas at Austin researcher in bilingual special education, agrees with Dr. Ramirez.

“When you look at kids long term, the research suggests that those who start learning other subjects in their native languages and then transition into English do better in all subjects,” she said. “The old theory was that it took 3-to-5 years to learn English fluently. Now the research indicates it’s more like 10 to 15 years. It’s not a question of whether we teach them in their native language; it’s how long we give them to learn English.”

As the Dallas district’s multilingual coordinator, Ms. Cortez hears all of the arguments for and against bilingual education. She defends bilingual education, but she agrees with critics that bilingual programs must have more resources, namely teachers, if they are to educate students at all. According to Texas Education Agency records, the state has graduated only 12,000 teachers certified in bilingual education since 1971.

“With more than 1,000 school districts in Texas, we’re lucky to get one or two. We have 709 now. We need 674,” Ms. Cortez said. “If the initiative in California passes and bilingual education is cut, we’re going to try to get as many of their bilingual teachers as we can to move here.

“But we need to do more than just teach the children,” she said.

“We have to get their parents in and teach them English as well, so the children will learn both languages at home.”

Ms. Cortez knows the debate will rage back and forth as it has since 1968, when bilingual education was introduced in federal legislation under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And because she knows firsthand how hard it will be for any child to learn without using his or her native tongue, she urges patience on all sides.

“I think too many people are looking for a quick fix, but quickly teach a child any language if you’re going to teach them right,” she said. “No matter how you do it, it takes patience and it takes time.”

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