By the end of the month, Gov. Pete Wilson must decide whether to sign a comprehensive bill requiring most California schools to provide bilingual education. An Orange County teacher is leading an against-the-grain campaign to persuade him to veto the measure.
Even before the bill passed the Legislature, Gloria Matta Tuchman launched the Campaign for California’s Kids, asking people to flood Wilson with phone calls and postcards urging him to veto Senate Bill 2026, the California Language Minority Education Act.
Another teacher, Sally Peterson of Sun Valley, has begun a similar campaign. Tuchman is scheduled to meet with Wilson or one of his aides on Sept. 28.
By crusading against the bill since April, Tuchman and her supporters have rekindled the sensitive and long-smoldering debate over the most effective way to teach immigrant children, especially whether or not they should be taught in their native languages.
Most civil-rights and immigrants-rights groups, and the bulk of the education Establishment, favor teaching pupils with limited-English skills in their native tongue until they gradually acquire proficiency in English. They feel it is the best way for them to learn their other academic subjects while learning a new language.
But because of a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers who speak the assortment of tongues now represented in California’s schools, many students learn from English-speaking teachers who use “sheltered” methods, such as more body language, clear pronunciation and gestures or pictures to convey concepts.
Some also are placed in “English language development” (ELD) programs, which teach English for part of the day and then mingle these students with their English-speaking peers in academic subjects for the rest of the day.
Tuchman, 50, a bilingual Latina who teaches first grade in Santa Ana and serves on the Tustin school board, says she has been called a racist because she zealously advocates teaching non-English-speaking children almost exclusively in English.
She insists that teaching students in their native language delays their acquisition of English, holding them back and undermining their success. “We keep them trapped in their native language,” she said. “We’re being very condescending to say they can’t learn in English.
“In my classroom (at Taft Elementary School), kids come in in September speaking many languages. I teach them in English, doing whatever it takes to get across. They go out in June speaking English.”
Tuchman argues that the test scores of California’s Latino students, which lag behind those of other ethnic groups, provide evidence that native-language instruction does them a disservice. Others argue that low test scores are explained by factors such as socioeconomic and cultural biases in the tests.
Tuchman points to a recently published study by the California Postsecondary Education Commission, which found that only 3.9% of 1990 Latino high school graduates were qualified to enter the University of California system, contrasted with 32.2% of Asian students, 12.7% of Anglos and 5.1% of blacks. Latinos were also less likely to take college-entrance exams.
Tuchman and others criticize the bilingual education bill, authored by state Sen. Henry J. Mello (D-Watsonville), for giving districts too little freedom to design their own English-acquisition methods. Maureen DiMarco, Wilson’s secretary of child development and education, agrees with that criticism. Accordingly, some of the bill’s supporters are losing faith that Wilson will sign the measure.
DiMarco declined to say whether she has recommended a veto, but said she has “serious concerns” about the “lack of flexible alternatives” provided to schools under the measure. Kassy Perry, Wilson’s deputy communications director, said the governor has not yet taken a position on Mello’s bill. She said he supports bilingual education, but “feels very strongly” that local school districts should be given a lot of freedom to decide how to design their programs.
The law would require that any school with 100 or more “English learners” provide native-language instruction or “two-way” bilingual courses, in which classes of half English-speaking children and half Spanish-speaking, for instance, receive some instruction in English and some in Spanish. Such schools could also design their own programs, provided they meet a list of criteria and receive approval from the state Office of Child Development and Education.
Schools with fewer than 100 English learners may use English-acquisition programs taught primarily in English.
The cost of implementing the law has drawn fire, even though estimates vary widely. The bill’s critics point out that the state Housing and Finance Agency opposes it, calculating that it would increase the state’s yearly contribution to bilingual education by $6.4 million. But an estimate by the Office of the Legislative Analyst projected only a one-time cost of $39,000.
It is not Tuchman’s first skirmish for this cause. She and another local teacher are sometimes referred to as “the Thelma and Louise of bilingual education,” because they drove to Sacramento in 1986 to help persuade then-Gov. George Deukmejian to veto legislation that would have extended bilingual-education programs until 1992. They won another Deukmejian veto in 1987.
Since then, no California law has mandated such programs. Federal law requires schools districts to provide equal educational opportunities to limited-English students, but does not specify methods. California schools have, for the most part, been abiding by strict and detailed directives set forth by state Schools Superintendent Bill Honig.
Many have complained that Honig’s mandates were too stringent, requiring that schools with even one limited-English child provide a special program to help the child acquire English. Catherine K. Douglas, a consultant to Sen. Mello, said the new bill allows schools far more flexibility than Honig’s regulations or the 1976 law that mandated bilingual education until 1986.
Native-language instruction, Douglas said, is the only way to assure that limited-English children continue to learn math, social studies and other subjects while they learn a new language.
“We are teaching them English as quickly as possible,” she said. “If we drop them into classes taught only in English, they won’t understand. They will fall behind. We don’t want to lose them. We don’t want them to drop out.”
Melinda Melendez agrees. A former bilingual education teacher in San Jose and education consultant to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, she points to a 1990 study supporting the value of native-language instruction. The five-year study by California researcher David Ramirez found that students in bilingual classes performed better on reading, math and language-arts tests than did their peers in English-immersion classes.
Those on the other side of the debate point to studies with the opposite conclusion. Dr. Robert E. Rossier, chairman of the READ Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., cites a multi-year analysis of bilingual students in El Paso. The two University of Oregon professors found, he said, that pupils who spent most of their time in English-taught courses learned English more quickly than did pupils taught in their native language, and did so without falling behind in their academic performance.
Angie Papadakis, a member of the state’s Little Hoover Commission and former member of the State Board of Education, is an avid supporter of English-language teaching for limited-English students. She bases her view on her own experience. The daughter of Greek immigrants, she spoke only Greek when she enrolled in grade school, and graduated at the top of her class from Dorsey High in South Los Angeles.
She opposes Mello’s bill, arguing that it entrenches a “failure-driven” system of bilingual education, in which schools have a vested interest in keeping students in the program as long as possible to retain their funding. She also feels students deserve the “respect” of an assumption that they can learn English by being taught in that language.
“It gives all the limited-English students in our schools — especially the Latinos, since there are so many of them — the message that they are not capable of learning in English,” Papadakis said. “Talk about damaging their self-esteem!”
Most of those on the front lines of bilingual education, however, have the opposite view. Anaida Colon-Muniz, director of bilingual education in Santa Ana Unified School District, where two-thirds of the students have only limited English skills, said that contrary to a common argument, students in native-language programs are “very enthusiastic” about learning English, and do so as quickly as those in programs taught in English.
Carol Stuart, who heads similar programs in the heavily immigrant Anaheim Union High School District, said it stands to reason that children learn most effectively in their native language.
“If I went to Greece, I would learn Greek history best by reading about it in English,” she said. “Then I could gradually learn Greek along the way as I absorbed it.”
Like most districts, Stuart’s uses a combination of strategies, dictated largely by the availability of qualified bilingual teachers. Most Spanish-speaking students are taught in their own language until they learn English, she said, but many others who speak Romanian, Tagalog, Korean or Vietnamese are placed in specially designed English-acquistion courses taught mostly in English, due to the shortage of teachers who speak their language.
What most convinces Tuchman that she is right are the children in her classroom who demonstrate that they can learn in English.
“I see it year after year,” Tuchman says. “It works.”
The number of Limited-English Proficient (LEP) students in California has jumped 76% during the last five years, but in Orange County the increase was 109%. These students represented just 15% of the county’s kindergarten through 12th-graders in 1987; today the figure is 27%. Statewide, the growth was from 14% to 21% during the same period. The LEP count is based on a language census conducted each March.
Orange County LEP Total K-12 LEP as % of Students Enrollment Total Enrollment 1987 49,928 342,116 15 1988 55,159 344,968 16 1989 64,544 351,004 18 1990 77,485 360,165 22 1991 93,447 375,537 25 1992 104,163 390,908 27
Statewide LEP Total K-12 LEP as % of Students Enrollment Total Enrollment 1987 613,224 4,377,989 14 1988 652,439 4,488,398 15 1989 742,559 4,618,120 16 1990 861,531 4,771,978 18 1991 986,462 4,950,474 20 1992 1,078,705 5,107,145 21
Most Common Tongues
Spanish dominates among LEP students, spoken by 70% statewide and 76% in
Orange County. The five most commonly spoken languages last year: In California In Orange County x Total % of LEP x Total % of LEP Language Speakers Students Language Speakers Students Spanish 755,359 70 Spanish 79,455 76 Vietnamese 40,477 4 Vietnamese 11,884 11 Cantonese 21,498 2 Korean 2,675 3 Hmong 21,060 2 Japanese 885 1 Cambodian* 20,055 2 Cambodian* 874 1 All others 220,256 20 All others 8,390 8
* Khmer dialect
Language Act Provisos
The California Language Minority Education Act has been passed by the Legislature and is now before Gov. Pete Wilson. Here are its main points:
* Requires schools to provide specialized instruction to each pupil identified as an “English learner” (EL).
* Declares that the primary goal of all programs is to develop in students “native-like” English proficiency, academic skills equivalent to those of native English speakers their age, cross-cultural knowledge and a positive self-concept.
* Requires school districts to conduct a yearly census of students’ language abilities and provide programs for ELs as follows:
* Schools with 100 or more ELs of the same language, or where ELs of a particular language make up 10% or more of the student population, must provide native-language instruction, a two-way bilingual program or alternative instruction providing the proposal meets certain guidelines.
* Schools with 50 to 99 ELs of the same language may implement specially designed English-acquisition programs taught primarily in English.
* Schools with fewer than 50 ELs may enroll English learners in regular core curriculum taught in English.
* Allows the state Board of Education to excuse districts from the above requirements if they demonstrate a shortage of bilingual teachers.
* Permits parents to keep their children out of bilingual programs.
Source: California and Orange County Departments of Education
Researched by CATHERINE GEWERTZ / Los Angeles Times
CORRECTION-DATE: September 30, 1992, Wednesday, Orange County Edition
CORRECTION: FOR THE RECORD
Bilingual education — Because of an editing error, The Times misidentified two state agencies in a Sept. 20 article about bilingual education. The correct name of the agency that would have been responsible for approving bilingual education programs designed by individual school districts is the state Department of Education. The state agency that opposed the measure, since vetoed by the governor, was the state Department of Finance.