Pressure Grows to Reform Bilingual Education in State

Schools: Post-Prop. 187 climate strengthens critics. Officials propose major changes in 14-year-old system.

SERIES: BILINGUAL BACKLASH. A closer look at immigrant education. First in an occasional series

Once written off as a xenophobic movement to drive Spanish out of the classroom, peopled by fanatical teachers, parents and politicians, the campaign to reform bilingual education has found its mainstream voice in post-187 California.

Some see the mounting pressure to abandon bilingual ed as yet another wave of immigrant bashing, a reaction to the virtual tsunami of non-English-speaking students that has crashed over the state in the past decade.

Others say the movement represents grass-roots politics at its best, reflecting the fundamental shift in public perception that has evolved gradually during the 20 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against sink-or-swim approaches to educating immigrant children.

But most everyone agrees that, considering today’s political and economic landscape, major changes are in store for the system that spends about $400 million to educate the 1.2 million children in this state who speak little or no English.

“There’s no question that English-as-an-official-language, immigration reform and affirmative action are all converging emotionally in the minds of our people,” said Stanley Diamond, who led the 1986 campaign to make English California’s official language and recently joined the anti-bilingual-education fight. “We really do expect dramatic changes now.”

California has the most rigorous bilingual education program in the nation. Under a 14-year-old policy, the state requires school districts with large numbers of non-English-speaking students to teach those children primarily in their native language, whenever possible.

But critics charge that policy — based on a state law that expired eight years ago — has caused bilingual education to fail at its central mission: teaching children English.

Now, lobbied by conservative politicians, bilingual opponents and school districts, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin and the State Board of Education are considering several proposals to loosen the restrictions on how immigrant children can be taught.

“We have to be honest enough with one another to say, when something isn’t working, it’s time to re-examine it,” Eastin said. “There has to be a point at which we bite the bullet and say, ‘At least, they have to learn English.’ ”

Eastin cited a 1993 report by a state watchdog commission that blamed the state’s policies for holding back thousands of students who should be learning English. While the number of non-English-speaking children in California has more than doubled in the past decade, the number of students moving into English fluency has stagnated at about 60,000 a year, the report said.

So Eastin has asked the State Board of Education to increase flexibility for local districts that want to use more English-language instruction. And she intends to crack down on districts that are not performing well under the native-language model.

“When it’s done right and you really do use it as an opportunity for the child not to fall behind academically, for a relatively short number of years, that’s fine,” she said. “But we oughtn’t spend our time defending the (programs) that don’t work. We ought to insist that they be changed.”

Because California is home to more than a third of the nation’s non-English-speaking students, what happens to bilingual education here has deep implications for other states with large immigrant populations, and for the federal government, which has faced increasing political pressure to gut bilingual funding since November’s conservative shift.

The federal government supports the kind of local control that Eastin espouses, but its top bilingual administrator worries that it could become an excuse for some districts to ignore the needs of immigrant students.

“I’ve seen this before and kids will be hurt by this climate, directly and indirectly,” said Eugene Garcia, the U.S. Department of Education’s director of bilingual education.

Proposals are pending in several states to cut back on bilingual education, although national observers say California’s standoff is angrier and — if Proposition 187’s landslide passage is an indication — may progress further than most.

Last month in Massachusetts, the state Legislature roundly rejected the Republican governor’s bilingual reform proposal, which would have allowed students a maximum of three years in bilingual instruction. In California, pending bills would give parents and school districts greater choice over the kinds of bilingual programs offered.

At the heart of California’s debate is its policy of native-language instruction, in which students learn English for as little as 20 minutes a day. They typically do not transfer into English-only classes for four to seven years.

Emphasis on native-language teaching was California’s answer to the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, when Mexican American and Chinese American parents and community leaders began lobbying for programs that would both respect and preserve their children’s language and culture.

The main alternative to native-language instruction is English as a Second Language (ESL), in which students are taught in English from their first day of school. At the start, they often are grouped together in separate classes and given some assistance in their own language, but they generally rejoin their English-speaking peers within three years.

The state now allows such instruction only if districts prove that they cannot find enough bilingual teachers. Yet virtually every district uses some form of English-language immersion: About a quarter of the state’s non-English-speaking students attend ESL classes and another quarter are taught totally in English, receiving little or no specialized instruction.

In Los Angeles Unified — the nation’s second-largest district and home to nearly half this state’s non-English-speaking students — the commitment to native-language instruction was cemented in 1988, when officials, parents and teachers collaborated on a master plan for bilingual education.

But several school districts in the state — tired of having complicated state requirements heaped on already overburdened teachers and administrators — want the option of teaching all their immigrant children in English. At least four in Southern California have petitioned the state to allow them to drop native-language instruction.

“There are just wonderful strategies out there dealing with these non-English-speaking kids where they don’t have to be stuck in native language,” said Carolyn Anderson, a second-grade teacher in Orange County’s Westminster School District, where nearly half of the students qualify for bilingual education in either Vietnamese or Spanish.

“We want to teach in English with native-language support, with bilingual aides in the classroom to help as needed,” Anderson said.

State education officials say local flexibility is already allowed by current state policy, but with a condition that the protesting districts don’t like: proof of student progress.

“They want flexibility to not provide materials, books, teachers,” said state Assistant Supt. Maria Trejo. “We can’t have that flexibility. We have to provide education for kids.”

Proof of student progress is hard to come by through either teaching method, however, partly because broad disagreement exists about what constitutes success.

Is it better that students learn basic English faster, in which case immersion is the answer? Or is it more important that students keep up with academic subjects while learning English gradually? Then native-language instruction works best.

In the most recent of dozens of studies on the subject, the New York City Public Schools in October released preliminary results of a four-year review showing that immersion students tested out of bilingual programs a year or two earlier than native-language students and, in the short-term, scored slightly higher on standardized tests.

The anti-bilingual education movement in California is trying to capitalize on such findings, suggesting that millions of dollars could be saved if young students’ capacity for learning quickly were routinely unleashed in all-English classes.

But bilingual backers produce their own studies that show that native-language instruction’s slower transition leads to greater academic success long-term, because children receive a stronger foundation in academic subjects — and end up truly bilingual as well.

The dueling research plays out in equally bewildering anecdotes.

As Nancy Infante paces in her native-language classroom at Eastman Avenue School on Los Angeles’ Eastside, where second-graders are writing essays in Spanish about the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the teacher suddenly switches to English.

“Claudio! You have crayons on the floor!”

Without hesitating, the youngster bends to retrieve his crayons.

Is this, as bilingual critics would suggest, evidence that Claudio is ready to learn in English years before Eastman’s program will let him? Or, is it proof that the native-language approach does not hinder his ability to understand English, while allowing him to tackle complex subjects in his primary language?

Like many bilingual teachers, Infante subscribes to the latter: “Socially they do fine (in English), but they are not academically bilingual,” she said. “When it’s something new that I’m introducing, I’d rather do it in Spanish because then they understand it completely.”

And there are the horror stories, the ones that few can deny are symptoms of programmatic sickness. Last year alone, dozens of districts were cited by the state for not providing adequate English-language instruction in their bilingual programs, a shortcoming that impedes student progress into regular classes.

Ira Torres enrolled her 5-year-old son, Jorge, in an immersion-style kindergarten at Sun Valley’s Glenwood School last fall because of her two sisters’ experiences with bilingual education. They were taught in Spanish beginning in kindergarten in Los Angeles and Santa Clara public schools, and as adults, they remain uncomfortable in English. “It totally confused me,” said one.

“I did not want that to happen to my son,” Torres said, in Spanish. “We plan to stay here in this country, so this is better for his future.”

In Torres’ estimation, the gamble has paid off: Four months after starting school speaking only Spanish, Jorge can converse easily in English. As he quarrels with another native-Spanish speaker in class one day, the two boys argue in English.

Jorge’s teacher, Sally Peterson, views him as another living victory for her cause. Through the Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD), which she formed eight years ago, Peterson has become a poster child for the anti-native-language movement and a pariah for bilingual supporters.

After years of operating on the fringe, facing protesters at her school and fighting charges of racism wherever she spoke, Peterson welcomes the changing political climate and growing scrutiny of bilingual education.

“In the past, to challenge bilingual ed was to be considered anti-immigrant or racist,” she said. “Now a lot of people are saying, ‘What is bilingual ed? Is it working? Is there something wrong with it?’ ”

As state education officials try to untangle politics from pedagogy, they cannot escape the most practical argument for reshaping bilingual education: lack of resources. Money, yes, but more importantly, personnel.

Even the most adamant believers in native-language instruction acknowledge that it only works if enough qualified bilingual teachers can be found. And, as the state’s immigrant student population rises, the gap between teacher supply and demand widens, making it ever more likely that a teacher who speaks only English will be called upon to teach children who speak none.

The truths are stark: There are fewer than 11,000 fully credentialed bilingual teachers in California — one for every 112 students who need them. And while the population of non-English-speaking students grew by 150% during the past decade, the number of bilingual teachers increased by only 30%.

The consequences are more stark: On her first day of teaching, Nancy Soo — a former teacher’s aide with an emergency teaching credential and no Spanish knowledge — walked into a Mid-City-area classroom filled with 32 first-graders, 27 of whom spoke only Spanish.

“I was pretty much flipping out,” she recalled. “I wanted to do the best job possible and I knew I wasn’t the best person to be doing it.”

Soo did what she could, using body language and picture books, and relying on a bilingual aide for three hours a day. The students soon learned English, she said, and she returned the following year to teach another predominantly Spanish class.

The state requires that non-fluent students receive some assistance in their native language, so schools are allowed to partially fill the gap by using teachers’ aides and teachers in training — who are either certified teachers learning a language or bilingual individuals studying to be teachers.

Increasingly, they rely on a burgeoning group of “language-development specialists” — teachers who speak only English, but have been trained in ESL techniques or Sheltered English, which relies on simple commands, short phrases and gestures.

To bolster their bilingual teachers corps, some districts have resorted to creative recruitment and grooming programs, ranging up to the $5,000-a-year stipend offered bilingual teachers by Los Angeles Unified and college scholarships for bilingual aides.

The cost of stipends, aides, native-language textbooks and other services adds up. A 1992 state-sponsored study estimated that sample districts spent about $360 extra annually per bilingual-program student — which would equate to more than $400 million statewide. Districts have to dip into their own budgets for some of that money; only about half comes to them earmarked for bilingual education.

The state bilingual education funds amount to about $190 extra for each student designated “limited-English proficient” or LEP — money that many schools spend on teachers’ aides, classroom supplies and curriculum development.

State Supt. Eastin believes that money may provide a disincentive for schools to promote children out of bilingual programs. She is considering a plan to offer financial bonuses to districts that transfer their students out of the special classes and into English-language programs.

“We have built a system that’s backward,” Eastin said. “We reward districts whose students don’t progress.”

Even at some of the state’s model schools, moving students into English from native-language instruction has proved difficult.

In 1983, Eastman Avenue School pioneered an intensive native-language curriculum that has since been copied across the nation. Yet only eight of its 1,135 native-language students — fewer than 1% — tested out of the elementary school’s bilingual program in each of the last two years.

Eastman’s new bilingual coordinator, who handles the testing, blames the low numbers on a rapid turnover of administrators, chronic student transiency and recent middle school restructuring, which caused Eastman to lose its sixth grade, where many of the transfers had previously occurred.

Proponents of the Eastman model resist the idea that the pace of English-language acquisition should be the main measure of a bilingual program’s success. More important, they say, is future academic success in English.

A seven-year analysis of Los Angeles students who started kindergarten in 1987 in schools based on the Eastman model showed that by sixth grade, they had achieved reading scores above the district average for all students.

“Our goal . . . is to make them not only fluent in English, but able to compete with English-only students,” said Diana Hernandez, director of the model schools program. “Sure, you can push. But that doesn’t ensure success.”

Languages at School

The number of non-English-speaking students in California’s public schools has more than doubled during the past decade, fueling debate over how best to educate them. The impact has been felt throughout the state, although the largest concentrations generally can be found in Southern and Central California communities. In sheer numbers, 42% of the students statewide attend schools in Los Angeles County.

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