Bilingual Education's Dilemmas Persist

SERIES: THE WAR OF THE WORDS; First of Three Articles

REDWOOD CITY, Calif.—They were a mystery to Barbara Ruel, these exuberant Spanish-speaking children whose faces went empty every time she opened a reader and began to write English vocabulary on the blackboard. Even the most recent of the Central American immigrants understood some English, and Ruel was a veteran reading teacher, but every word she gave them seemed gone by the next week. They would stare at their readers and Ruel could see them struggling, as though the shapes had blurred before them.

What was she doing wrong?

Then in 1976, intrigued by a controversial idea that was gaining momentum among a few teachers, Ruel decided to try something so different that she was not certain the school administration would even allow it. Working in secret, she and her Spanish-speaking aide sat down together and wrote an entire first-grade reading primer in Spanish.

Ten words a week, Ruel told the aide — two characters, a boy and a girl, admiring spring. Mariposa. Butterfly. El Pajaro Vuele. The bird flies. Ruel ran the pages off on the school mimeograph, the aide watched the door to make sure no one was coming, and with no advance warning Ruel presented her Spanish-speaking first-graders one day with a small stapled volume written entirely in their own language.

All at once, Ruel says now, she had a roomful of voracious readers. She had children who ran to her at the end of each day to ask what stories or new sentences they might take home that night. “We could not keep up with them,” she said recently. “I thought, God, it’s fabulous, it’s just fabulous. They started to read like normal first-graders read.”

And as Barbara Ruel sat back in the nearly deserted lunchroom at Hoover Elementary and remembered those children, a single glimpse through the open classroom doors nearby might have hinted at the breadth of the change in the decade since Ruel stapled together her primers. The school district’s hard-bound Spanish readers lay in fat stacks on the bookshelves, wall-length dual alphabet charts displayed the Spanish ll and ch, and a bright construction-paper leprechaun smoked a pipe under the large bulletin board letters that identified him: El Duende.

Ten years ago, spurred by a Supreme Court decision arguably as significant for non-English-speaking students as Brown v. Board of Education was for black students, the U.S. Office of Education began a nationwide effort whose premise was unprecedented in American education. The scope was massive, affecting school districts from southern Florida to the Alaskan bush. Wielding educational research and the new mandate of the Supreme Court, officials declared that in the American public school system, every non-English-speaking child below high school age had a right to be taught in his own language — to learn basic subjects from a bilingual teacher so the child might develop self-confidence, sharpen his thinking skills and keep from falling behind in school while he was mastering English.

It was called “bilingual education,” and the clamor it raised was tremendous, from the legislative battles to the heated school board meetings to the teachers who stopped speaking to each other in faculty lunchrooms. In the modern history of this nation’s public schools, nothing except racial desegregation has so thoroughly entangled the classroom with intense feelings about ethnicity, politics and the meaning of becoming an American.

And although the outcry has quieted since the public debates of the early 1980s, the dilemmas of bilingual education have not. If you set out this year on a random tour of American classrooms, you would find, amidst teachers still deeply divided about the idea, half a million children now enrolled in what their schools call bilingual education — an effort that is costing local school boards and the federal government about $500 million a year. You would find young Boston Haitians learning culture in Creole, and Mississippi Indians learning to read in Choctaw, and children of Michigan immigrants learning history in Albanian and Arabic. You would find math workbooks in Spanish, Italian reading primers, Chinese vocabulary cards, Navaho storybooks, an Earth sciences text in Laotian, a U.S. history text in Vietnamese, and color and shape charts written in the Filipino dialect Tagalog.

You would find a young Oakland teacher, the walls of her classroom bright with two-language vocabulary posters, walking the narrow rows between desks and announcing the words for the day’s spelling test. “In English — see. ‘I will see who studied.’ ” A pause for the careful penciling of a few of the children, and then: “En Espanol — pan. ‘Me gusta el pan.’ ” I like bread. And the rest of the children hunch over their papers, murmuring the sentence as they write.

You would visit a Spanish bilingual class whose teacher speaks no Spanish; a bilingual Cambodian class whose teacher speaks no Khmer; a bilingual Chinese class whose teacher has no intention of learning Chinese and believes most dual-language education has no place in the taxpayer-funded schools of an English-speaking society.

You would watch attorneys and administrators grapple over major bilingual-education lawsuits in Illinois, California and Colorado. You would hear immigrant parents insist on English-only classes, and immigrant parents demanding improved bilingual classes. You would pick up studies that variously claim bilingual education improves, impairs or has no effect on academic performance.

And you might come across a school or two like Hoover Elementary, where for all their uncertainty and occasional misgivings, Barbara Ruel and her colleagues say what sells them on bilingual education is the children around them — children they believe would have withdrawn into failure under a constant barrage of English.

“. . . Almost frightened to death,” Ruel said, remembering Valentina, who came to Ruel’s first-grade classroom three years ago from an elementary school where the child had been in English-only classes. “I remember my aide and I welcoming her, and her little face kind of — ‘Oh, my God, I can relax. Somebody’s saying something I can understand for the first time in two years.’ “

A decade of argument might be read into the slow unclenching of that small girl’s face, in a Mexican-born schoolchild’s discovery that she needed no English to make sense of her surroundings. A visitor to Hoover need drive less than 10 minutes to find junior high school teachers who think of “that warm little cocoon,” as one social studies teacher called the elementary-level bilingual program, as a well-intentioned trap that produces seventh-graders unable to speak or write coherent English.

And the most fervent of bilingual education’s supporters include scores of men and women who have never forgotten how it felt to be a Valentina years ago. Beatriz Arias, a Stanford education professor whose Mexican-born father sent her to a Los Angeles kindergarten in the early 1950s, still remembers being locked into a supply closet every time she spoke Spanish in the classroom. Louise Kinsley, an Arizona Navaho woman who is now 29, was in second grade when her Bureau of Indian Affairs schoolteacher drew a small circle on the blackboard and then demanded that Kinsley stand before the class with her nose pressed into the circle — the classroom punishment for speaking Navaho in school.

No one punished Kinney Kinmon Lau for speaking Chinese at Jean Parker Elementary School in San Francisco, but no one taught him in Chinese, either. He was 6 years old, the son of an immigrant carpenter in San Francisco’s Chinatown, when a young lawyer in 1970 happened to find Kinney “languishing,” as the lawyer puts it, in a first-grade class that treated him like any other San Francisco first-grader — the class was all in English, with no special courses like English as a Second Language to help a child who had grown up speaking Cantonese.

“Sink-or-swim” is the bilingual teachers’ nickname for classes like that — you either master English, in what popular if arguable notions of American history insist is the time-honored manner, or you pass beneath the waves. In Lau v. Nichols, as the case came to be called, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that sink-or-swim violated the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by racial or national origin in any program receiving federal financial help. “There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum,” wrote Justice William O. Douglas in January 1974, “for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.”

The court did not mandate bilingual education; it simply mandated that students receive some special help. But when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Office of Education convened a panel to draw up guidelines for federal enforcement of the Lau ruling, the panel members in 1975 decided after some argument that the government’s preferred approach — directly affecting about 500 school districts, and strongly influencing many subsequent state education laws — was the controversial and politically-loaded practice of dual language teaching in the schools.

“I don’t think people realized how big it was,” said Edward de Avila, an Oakland-based educational consultant who helped prepare the government guidelines. “I know I didn’t.”Struggling in Redwood City

Patty Swanson, her blond hair tucked under a small purple beret, dropped into an undersized wood chair one recent afternoon at Hoover Elementary and offered up the problem of Gloria. Gloria (her real name has been changed at Swanson’s request) is in Swanson’s bilingual fifth-grade class. The child came to Hoover in fourth grade, shy, just up from Mexico, speaking no English. Into a bilingual class she went — Hoover’s Hispanic population is so large now that nearly every class is bilingual — and she began reading, as the Spanish speakers generally do at Hoover, in Spanish.

Two years later, Gloria is uneasy about English and is still reading in Spanish. When she has to get up in science class to present her work group’s report on the results of their experiment, she struggles through the English words, glancing down at her notes to remember how to put the sentences together. On the face of it, Swanson said, Gloria looks like fodder for the bilingual-education opponents who complain that the “crutch” of Spanish teaching keeps children from fluency in English.

But Swanson has seen what she believes happens to the Glorias who get no teaching in Spanish — who are immersed into traditional English classrooms and then pulled away each day for a brief session in English as a Second Language. Those ESL courses are what Swanson used to teach. Every day, in a rural school on the northern California coast, she led Spanish-speaking children through the workbooks offered in ESL. What’s this? It’s a book. What’s this? It’s a pen.

“Half the kids I worked with became big behavior problems,” Swanson said. “They were so frustrated. They were so angry . . . Of the group, about a third of them survived and will do quite well. But those are the numbers you’re working with in immersion.”

And Gloria? To hurry her into English, Swanson is preparing her for English reading and is trying not to speak Spanish to her any longer. “Maybe in immersion she would have been forced . . .” Swanson mused. “But her conceptual stuff — she wouldn’t have any idea who Christopher Columbus was. She wouldn’t know the difference between transparent and opaque, or what causes a shadow.”

Swanson nodded toward the other end of the classroom, where a curly-haired boy in fashionably baggy slacks was offering some arithmetic advice and horsing around in both English and Spanish. “Look at that kid — he’s beaming with confidence,” she said. “In math he’s at the top of his class, because he hasn’t missed out on concepts.”

So when the class ranges from monolingual Anglos to Mexicans barely settled in this country, how does a bilingual fifth-grade teacher cope?

This is how: She has four different reading groups, one in English, one in Spanish and two just switched over from Spanish to English and working through lower-level books. She assigns and writes compositions in whatever language the student is currently reading. She teaches ESL every morning, sends the whole class out to a special bilingual science workshop, sprinkles Spanish into her arithmetic lessons when the children seem to have trouble understanding, and sandwiches chunks of English teaching between tutoring sessions with children who need the ideas explained in Spanish.

“You just sort of look at your class and feel it out,” Swanson said.

It is complicated and demanding — her training never prepared her for classes that include immigrant children who didn’t start school until they were 12 — and it is precisely what Swanson wants to do. She is part of a new generation of Redwood City teachers — women and men hired under a controversial 1981 board resolution to accept only teachers trained to work in two languages. School districts across the country reacted any number of ways to the bilingual mandates forced on them by federal guidelines and new state laws: some ignored them, some handed the responsibility to bilingual but otherwise ill-qualified teaching aides, and some, like Redwood City, scrambled to snatch up the few bilingual teachers who were emerging with at least some theoretical training in dual-language teaching.

“You’ve got to compete,” said Connie Williams, the energetic administrator who five years ago began setting up the city’s bilingual program. “If you just wait for bilingual teachers to come to you, they don’t come.”

On paper, two years after the full complement of bilingual teachers finally settled in at Hoover, there is not a great deal to show for Williams’ efforts so far. The test scores are mixed, with some showing slight improvement and some showing none. And there is little enthusiasm at the two junior high schools that take Hoover students; a dozen teachers, interviewed at random, said either that they could see no difference between the bilingual-class children and children taught in traditional classes, or that they believed the bilingual classes were keeping some students from learning English.

“Enormous numbers of kids I get in my class say they’ve been here in the United States four and five years, and they don’t have the English language skills that kids who haven’t been in the bilingual program have,” said Diane Davoli, a social studies teacher at Kennedy Junior High. Like the other teachers interviewed, she was not certain what students had gone to which schools — whether the children she was describing went through five years of bilingual classes, or even whether they were telling the truth about how long they had been in the country.

“Of course the scores are low,” Swanson said heatedly over the faculty lunchroom table. “They’re testing kids who have only been in school one or two years.”

“They’re probably comparing them to middle-class kids,” said Barbara Ruel, the teacher who experimented with Spanish reading nine years ago. “And I think that’s unfair, I really do. And I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re bad teachers. I think they’re doing it because they don’t understand the complexities . . . Perhaps if some of those teachers worked over here for a while — with any amount of feeling, they would understand.” In a Child’s Shoes ——–

Ruel has no classroom now; she works as a resource teacher, helping plan other teachers’ curriculums. She is one of the English speakers who promised in writing that she would pass a test in Spanish competency and “cultural understanding.” She studied for two years, and then four years ago, by then a 43-year-old schoolteacher with 20 years’ classroom experience, she reported for her test.

The examiner was a young Mexican-American woman who read an article in rapid Spanish and asked Ruel to respond. Ruel does not remember now what the article was about, but she was certain, as she listened, that it had nothing to do with the words you use to teach first-graders to read.

She remembers the blood draining from her face. It seemed to her all at once that she must be feeling precisely what a 7-year-old Mexican immigrant feels the first time a teacher calls on him in English.

Ruel failed the examination. The news came by mail, some weeks later. She had passed the “cultural understanding” section, but she had failed the language test, and she needed both. She believes she is still an entirely capable Spanish reading teacher, and that although she has not been asked to leave Hoover, she would go if they wanted her to.

But she will not go through the examination again. NEXT: The complaints.

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