SANTA ANA, Calif. — Bilingual education, once widely hailed as a humane and sound method of immigrant assimilation, has fallen into disfavor, disparaged as a bureaucratic boondoggle, even by many of the people it was primarily designed to serve: the nation’s increasing Hispanic minority.
On Tuesday, California voters are expected to endorse Proposition 227, which will eliminate the hundreds of bilingual programs in a state that is home to nearly half of the pupils in the United States of limited English proficiency, setting the stage for similar attacks on such programs nationwide.
If it passes, Proposition 227, which essentially limits help to non-native speakers to a year of intensive English instruction, will mark an extraordinary intervention by voters into classrooms to mandate teaching methods, a sign of the growing importance of education in the nation’s political debate.
The shift in the fortunes of the nation’s bilingual education system has been dramatic, the result of flagging support among its key constituents, Hispanics; a growing political resistance to federal education bureaucracies; and the sense that, despite a plethora of studies, there was no conclusive evidence that it worked.
Behind that erosion of support is a stubborn statistic: the high dropout rate of Hispanic youths.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the school dropout rate in 1995 of Hispanics ages 18-24 who were born in the United States remained at 17.9 percent, but that of Hispanic immigrants was 46.2 percent. This compares with 12.2 percent of blacks and 8.6 percent of whites who drop out. Foreign-born blacks and whites had lower drop-out rates than those who were born in the United States.
Since three-quarters of schoolchildren nationwide who speak limited English are Hispanic, and since bilingual education is often made to stand for the whole question of educating foreign-language children, the failure of the schools to educate Hispanic youths is often discussed interchangeably with bilingual education as if they were the same thing.
While the initiative is the work of a white Republican Silicon Valley millionaire named Ronald Unz, it is backed, according to repeated opinion polls, by at least half of the state’s Hispanic voters.
They include Virginia Martinez, a former bilingual education teacher here in Santa Ana, a town an hour south of Los Angeles with the largest concentration of Hispanic immigrants and their offspring in the country, according to national census data.
Here, where the issues of immigrant absorption and bilingual education are particularly pronounced, Ms. Martinez tests for English competency at Taft Elementary School, which has foregone bilingual education for the past 13 years, favoring English immersion, the aim of Proposition 227.
“I kept seeing kids doing poorly in the upper grades after they had gone through bilingual education,” she said. “There was no transition to English. I felt that bilingual education was holding them back.”
In the school, Hispanic and Asian children learn in English from the first day, with the occasional translation help of teacher aides. High scores reflect clear success, although Taft serves a more middle-class and ethnically mixed population than many schools with bilingual programs.
At the same time, Pio Pico Elementary School, just a few miles away, is a reminder of what bilingual education was supposed to be. Built on a lot once overrun by gangs, now an oasis of learning and community involvement, Pio Pico serves a uniform population of low-income Mexican and Central American immigrants who believe deeply in bilingual education.
“With bilingual education, I am involved with my daughter’s schooling,” said Martha Leon, a housekeeper whose daughter, Lizeth, is in fourth grade. “My daughter is learning English, but because of the Spanish, I feel the school is mine, part of me.”
This issue is not confined to California. Backed by a broad range of politicians, including then Gov. Ronald Reagan, bilingual education emerged from the civil rights era and was supported by its own Supreme Court decision, the 1974 Lau vs. Nichols ruling.
Aside from California, 10 states mandate bilingual education, and most others permit it. Since 1968, when Congress first passed the Bilingual Education Act, the federal government has helped fund it. And while not one of those programs yet faces a sweeping initiative like that in California, all are under debate if not outright attack and curtailment.
In Chicago and Denver, school boards have recently limited bilingual classes to three years; in Arizona, the legislature has voted to limit funding for them to four years. In Albuquerque, parents are suing the school system, alleging that bilingual classes segregate their children, a charge that had been leveled at New York state by parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., three years ago. This followed a Board of Education report asserting that bilingual programs had failed to teach children as effectively as those in English-only classes.
Supporters of bilingual education contend that the programs have never been adequately supported or implemented, and are thus unfairly blamed for the shortcomings of Hispanic education in this country. Most Hispanic students do not study in bilingual classes because there are simply not enough classes to accommodate their rapidly growing numbers. Moreover, most bilingual classes take place in underfunded school districts, adding to the difficulty of assessing their effectiveness. In California, only 30 percent of the students with limited English ability are in bilingual classes because there is a shortage of about 20,000 bilingual teachers in the state. And there is no known difference in dropout rates between those in bilingual classes and those of similar background studying only in English.
What is clear is that demographics will only add urgency to the debate. In California alone, 100,000 Mexicans arrive legally each year, an unprecedented immigration from a single country that is slowing their assimilation. Nationally, by 2008, Hispanic-Americans will outnumber blacks and form the nation’s single largest minority group. Within half a century, they are expected to constitute 25 percent of the U.S. population, making their education an issue of enormous longterm consequence.
Within the scholarly community, views on bilingual education remain largely positive but even there, disillusionment can be felt over the sloppiness of research and the difficulty of drawing conclusions. The programs’ failings are acknowledged although less so any theoretical weaknesses.
“I am fairly certain that if you control for all other factors — rates of poverty, teacher training, school climate — and just study the process of language acquisition, you have a slight edge for bilingual education. But that edge is extremely small,” said Kenji Hakuta, professor of education at Stanford University and chairman of a panel that produced a recent National Research Council report on educating children with limited English.
“People are genuinely and appropriately dissatisfied but they are misdiagnosing the problem. The kids are learning English. The problem is that they are not progressing in school subject matters.”
He, like other opponents of Proposition 227, say that since it forbids bilingual education except under exceptional circumstances and requires all children to fit into one unproven method of educational transition, it is poorly conceived and dangerous. Unz and his supporters counter that their plan is based on European models that do work.
One of the problems in the debate is the varying definition of bilingual education and the many programs that come under its rubric, from English as a Second Language, to so-called structured immersion — mostly English instruction with some subject content thrown in — to true bilingual teaching.
In its most widely understood form, bilingual education teaches academic subjects to immigrant children in their native languages while, at the same time, gradually instructing them in English so that after a few years they join regular classes.
The idea is that instead of their losing time learning English before entering school or having to struggle in English before they are ready, such a program allows these children to keep up with their grade levels while gradually transferring into mainstream classes.
Important elements of the theory behind this plan were provided by Jim Cummins, a professor of education at the University of Toronto. He argued that learning to read in one’s native language makes it easier to read in a second language and that the more children master in their first language, the more they will be able to master in the second.
Practical experience backed these theories in part. When children arrived in the United States who had been well-schooled abroad, they made the transition to English and American classes easily. They understood how a language works and were able to transfer their skills.
The problems occurred when children were either born here or had received inadequate schooling before immigrating. Teaching them for years in their native language before allowing the transition to English seems to have done them little good.
As Charles Glenn, professor of education policy at Boston University, put it:
“Someone who plays soccer will learn to play American football faster than someone else who has never played a sport. But that does not make it efficient to teach soccer first if the goal is football. We should build on academic skills if a child already has them in another language but we should not make developing new ones in that language a priority.”
Still, the research on bilingual education is notoriously inconclusive and studies seem often to be done by scholars seeking to boost their own points of view. The original theory of bilingual education was that students would move out of their native languages as rapidly as possible into English, normally between one and three years. But that approach has lagged with many students staying six to seven years in primary language classes both because they were not yet fluent enough in English and because of more complex reasons.
Some Spanish language teachers felt protective of students and feared they would be mistreated in mainstream classes. Others simply found it easier to instruct pupils in Spanish and so made insufficient effort to teach in English.
Still others believed that the longer native speakers were taught in their language, the more easily they would learn subjects in English.
For the backers of Proposition 227, dragging out of the transition to English is what is wrong with bilingual education. They say it has developed its own bureaucracy and budgets and has lost sight of the welfare of the children not to mention that of a country long reliant on quick assimilation through English. Unz often mentions immigrants like his mother who learned English in kindergarten and never looked back.
The truth is more complicated. Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington has written a book called “The Way We Were?” (Century Foundation Press, 1998) in which he demonstrates how poorly immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Russia did in school in the early part of the century. For example, in 1931, only 11 percent of the Italian students who entered high school graduated compared with 40 percent for all students.
He also notes that before World War I, many immigrant groups used bilingual education in public schools, notably in German but also in Italian, French, Czech, and Chinese.
Most of those programs were ended because of anti-German and isolationist sentiments that swept the country in the 1920s. When bilingual education was revived in the 1960s, it was boosted partly by the assertion that the American economy depended on its citizens’ ability to do business abroad.
Today, English is the international language, far more dominant than it was 30 years ago. Parents across the globe are demanding more and earlier English instruction for their children and many foreign-born parents here consider mastery of English to be fundamental for their children. This, too, has weakened the case for bilingual education and driven voters toward Proposition 227.
But at Pio Pico, there is a feeling that all they have worked toward is endangered. When asked what they would do if the initiative passed, Judith Magsaysay, the principal, half joked that she would go to jail rather than stop using Spanish to help her pupils. When the parents around the table heard her, they said in chorus, “Don’t worry. We’ll bring you tortillas in prison.”