LOS ANGELES – For friends and foes of bilingual education, it’s a black-or-white issue – it works or it doesn’t.
Researchers say the picture is more muddled. A national study shows bilingual programs are effective, if taught under the right circumstances.
“The research is quite clear. Bilingual education is a valid instrument,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University professor who served as chairman for the National Research Council’s committee on research development for the education of English-limited children.
“The bad news is that bilingual education alone is not going to solve the problem,” Hakuta said. “It has to be seen as an instrument, along with a host of other instruments.”
The committee produced a 1997 report, “Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda.” Advocates on both sides of the bilingual education debate cite the study to support arguments for and against bilingual education.
The programs have come under increasing scrutiny by Congress, state legislatures and educators.
Californians vote June 2 on the closely watched Proposition 227, which would end bilingual education and replace it with a one-year intensive English immersion course for limited English speakers.
The NRC report states many researchers have been biased, either for or against bilingual education, when they conduct studies.
Bilingual education advocates point to George Mason University researchers Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier’s 1995 study of 42,000 language-minority students.
In their report, Collier and Thomas conclude students participating in quality bilingual programs likely will perform as well as native English speakers, and possibly will outperform them once they reach high school.
Bilingual education detractors refer to a report by Boston University political science professor Christine Rossell, whose data showed students in bilingual education programs did no better, and in some cases fared worse, than children in English-as-a-second- language programs.
“Bilingual education is a topic that has so much emotion tied to it,” said Alba Ortiz, associate dean of education at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the team Hakuta was leading.
“That’s why the NRC brought this research group together, to provide an objective perspective and some guidance on how to improve education for language minorities, not just to improve language instruction,” Ortiz said.
The NRC researchers said the best reports show bilingual-education programs help students learn reading, writing, math and English when:
Schools have skilled teachers fully fluent in both languages.
Students are tested for their acquisition of English and other required subjects.
Schools are held accountable for learning.
Textbooks and other material are available in both languages.
Schools are focused on improving learning conditions.
Students stay enrolled at the same school for the duration of the program.
Parents are involved in their childrens’ education.
The vast majority of California schools with language minorities don’t offer effective bilingual programs, educators admit.
“There are some schools that are not implementing the program well. Some school districts just generally are not doing a good job educating. And others haven’t chosen the best model to serve their students’ needs,” said David Dolson, manager of the Office of Language Policy and Leadership at the California Department of Education.
A teacher shortage affects schools nationwide. But the dearth of qualified bilingual-education instructors, or even English-as-a-second-language teachers, is particularly great.
More than 70 percent of teachers of language-minority students in the United States aren’t properly trained to do their job, according to a 1994 federal study.
The result of the training inconsistency, said University of Southern California Professor Stephen Krashen, is that bilingual teachers are not using accepted bilingual education practices and theories.
And those working with students in ESL language programs are overwhelmed.
“We need to think of creative means of developing our teacher base,” Krashen told educators at the California Association for Bilingual Education’s statewide conference in San Jose.
In Texas, the shortage of certified bilingual and ESL teachers is not as acute. And while there has been a steady increase of language-minority students in Texas, it has not been as dramatic as the rise in California.
In 1982, Texas had about 200,000 students with limited English proficiency, making up 7 percent of total enrollment. The number rose to 360,000 10 years later, or about 10 percent of enrollment.
“There is a teacher shortage throughout the nation and there are a lot of teachers who are bilingual who aren’t fully certified,” said Albert Cortez, with the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio. “We need to make sure that teachers have the training and the resources.”
Supporters and opponents of bilingual education agree, Ninth Street Elementary School exemplifies failure of bilingual programs.
The school sits surrounded by textile mills, garment industry sweatshops and an auto body shop in a rundown section of downtown Los Angeles.
A collection of white portable buildings, the school is “the cheapest school,” because kids have no place to play soccer, basketball, or even kickball, 10-year-old fifth- grader Carlos Rosales said.
More than half of its 400 students are special-permit students who don’t live in the school’s attendance zone, but are enrolled there because their parents work in the nearby factories.
All of the students live in poverty. Most don’t speak English at home. Some enrolled in the school earlier in the year and then moved later in the year. Some are undocumented immigrants. Some are homeless.
Alice Callaghan oversees Las Familias Del Pueblo, an afterschool program for 70 children from the school. She organized parents from her center two years ago in a protest against bilingual education.
“Some of our children were being moved into middle school not knowing how to speak English, not knowing how to read. It is an injustice,” Callaghan said.
She blames bilingual education.
Officials in the Los Angeles Unified School District said the events in the 1995-96 school year resulted from insensitivity and poor communication on the part of the school district.
“We have learned from the incident that we need to improve our communication with our parents,” said Forrest Ross, elementary schools administrator for the district’s language acquisition and bilingual development office.
He said it was unfair to blame bilingual education for the disadvantages the school and students faced.
Experts say poverty, low levels of parental education, inadequate teacher training and a lack of school accountability can have great influence on a language-minority student’s academic success.
“What we said in the report was that research should pay attention to how to improve schools overall for these children, not just the language instruction,” Hakuta said.
“One interesting aspect of the discussion is that people say that bilingual education does or doesn’t work, and the larger question is, ‘Does education work?'” Ortiz said.
“And the thing for people to know is that the majority of Hispanics are not succeeding in general education. And we need to look at how to improve how we educate Hispanics generally.”
About a half-hour away from the garment district sits Denker Elementary, a school in better, although not ideal, circumstances in the suburb of Gardena.
Leafy trees and one-story stucco homes surround the school with more than 1,000 students. Language-minority students make up about a third of that enrollment, and speak more than six different languages. Half the children live in poverty.
The school has a regular Spanish bilingual-education program and a model Korean two-way bilingual program.
Two-way programs include native English speakers and language-minority students. About 200 exist nationwide. The goal is literacy and fluency in both languages and biculturalism for all children.
“Because the school is so diverse and the city was experiencing problems with racial strife, the school district thought the program would help to bridge some gaps, build some understanding between the cultures,” Denker Principal Barbara Jordan said.
Administrators and a few teachers visited Korea to observe teaching in the language. Community members participate in the program.
In teacher Justine Kim’s fourth- grade classroom, students’ essays printed in both Korean script and English hang on a bulletin board.
Kim, a Korean American, taught Korean, Anglo, Filipino and African-American students about geometrical figures – parallelograms and oval forms – in Korean one afternoon.
“English and Korean are the same. They’re both easy and hard,” said Tiffany Ha, a 9-year-old who was born in the United States, but whose parents speak only Korean.
Teachers here are baffled about the claims that bilingual education doesn’t work.
“I put my own child in the program, because I teach here and I know that it works,” said Minah Lee, the program’s second-grade teacher.
But, the principal said, most schools don’t have the same level of support as Denker.
“The outcomes would suggest that children’s needs are not being met. At worst, because we aren’t doing a good job of testing them for their knowledge, we don’t know how they’re doing,” Hakuta said. “We need to continue to make improvements.”