What is the real problem?

Some point to inferior schools; Prop. 227's author blames bilingual education

It comes down to this: Has bilingual education worked or not?

That is the question many voters will be asking themselves in nine days when they vote on Proposition 227.

Yet, there are no easy answers.

California has not done a good job educating the one in four students who come to public schools each year not speaking English. Few would argue with that.

But the issue remains whether that failure is the fault of bilingual classes, where students are taught mostly in their home language, or the public schools system as a whole.

Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227, believes bilingual education is the main culprit. He says it has made too many students dependent on their home language and deprived them of critical English skills.

His ballot measure would require schools to educate students in English from Day One, immersing them in a year of English-language instruction before they move into regular classes.

“I would guess that a significant portion of the achievement gap is based on language,” said Unz, a Silicon Valley software executive. “There’s no way to prove that. But it just seems to me that it is a significant controlling factor. All the evidence seems to point to it as one.”

But many teachers, school administrators and researchers — most of whom oppose Prop. 227 — say the debate over language oversimplifies a complex problem. In fact, less than one-third of the 1.4 million students with limited English skills are even in bilingual programs, mostly because of a shortage of qualified teachers or the differing educational philosophies of school districts. The rest learn in classes where English is the primary or only language used.

Inferior schools — with their low academic standards, inexperienced teachers and outdated textbooks — are the real problem, many educators say. Those obstacles fall particularly hard on children with limited English skills, who tend to be poor and attend crowded, urban schools.

`The politics of language’

“We really need to move away from the language issue, because we are just getting bogged down in the politics of language,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University professor of education. “The legitimate part of the (Unz) initiative is that schools are not serving limited English proficient students well. But I think it is as much a struggle of education itself, especially in dealing with poor kids.”

In California, Latinos — who make up 80 percent of the limited-English population — had the second-highest drop-out rate in 1995, just behind African-Americans. They were the least likely to complete a full battery of college prep courses in high school. And they made up less than 4 percent of University of California freshman, though they were about 30 percent of the state’s high school graduates.

Unz says the very program that was supposed to level the playing field for Latino students has in practice worked against them.

“I’d say a quarter to a third of the Latino student achievement gap is caused by these stupid language programs,” Unz said. “I personally can’t think of anything else that would have that big an impact. We should stop using the method that doesn’t seem to work.”

Yet there are schools — in communities such as Redwood City and southwest Los Angeles — that have embraced bilingual education and made strides academically. These schools are giving their students an academic grounding in their home language while they become proficient in English.

Serving a solidly working-class community, Redwood City Elementary is grappling with conditions that do not usually promote academic success. Nearly six in 10 of the school district’s 8,400 students are Latino, and about half are considered “limited English proficient.” Districtwide, more than 40 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At some schools, the figure reaches 90 percent.

A few years ago, the district committed to improving the success of its non-English-speaking students.

Hawes Elementary School third-grade teacher Tony Byrd is one of the dozens of teachers charged with making it happen.

Strong foundation needed

Before his class, Byrd’s Spanish-speaking students were taught most of their core subjects in Spanish. Byrd’s job now is to begin teaching some subjects in English.

By early May, seven of his 20 students already read as well in English as native English speakers, Byrd said. By the end of next year, all of the students should be able to move into English-only classes, according to district goals.

“The kids who have strong foundation in Spanish make a much better transition in English,” said Byrd, who’s been teaching for four years. “It’s pretty amazing. It really works, which is surprising to me, because I wasn’t really a believer in the (bilingual) theory at first.”

Academically, Hawes’ Spanish-speaking students have showed progress in the past three years, with first-graders posting year-to-year gains on reading and math tests.

Districtwide, Redwood City Spanish-speaking students are climbing out of the basement on the district’s nationally standardized reading test. Teachers are moving more fifth-graders into English-only classes.

Last year, 65 percent of fifth-graders who had started in the district in kindergarten moved into English-only classrooms. This year, 75 percent made the transition. By 2000, the district’s goal is to have all fifth-graders in English classrooms.

“We’re not the best thing since sliced bread,” Superintendent Ronald Crates said. “But we have progressed dramatically.”

Teachers and administrators attribute the progress to a strong early literacy program used in all schools (bilingual or otherwise), well-prepared teachers and a new culture that prizes student achievement.

Principals now spend more time at their annual retreats focusing on test scores. Teachers can refer to curriculum guidelines to see what their students are supposed to know and when. And twice-a-month meetings at each elementary school allow teachers to compare their students’ progress, discuss problems and brainstorm teaching strategies.

“We’ve gotten too caught up in fads and philosophical debates and sound bites and forgotten where we are at,” Crates said. “The game is much simpler than we think. We’ve got to figure out what kids need, give it to them and then monitor their progress.”

An L.A. school’s story

Felton Elementary School in Los Angeles’ Lennox School District adopted many of the same strategies when it sought to improve student performance in the early 1990s. The poor, mostly Latino district, situated below the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport, already had a reputation for a commitment to bilingual education as the best way to teach limited-English children.

The five-school district had required all employees — from top administrators to school secretaries — to be bilingual, forged close ties with parents, expanded teacher training and started hiring former students as aides or teachers. But that wasn’t enough. The district’s standardized test scores in the late 1980s were among the lowest in the state.

In 1990, then-principal Jessie Sullivan and University of California-Los Angeles researcher Claude Goldenberg launched a concerted effort to improve student achievement at Felton. At that time, 93 percent of the students came from Spanish-language homes and 96 percent qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

>From the start, Sullivan and Goldenberg decided not to tinker with the bilingual instruction, figuring “such a program by itself cannot guarantee student success,” according to their published study http://www.ncbe.gwu.edu/miscpubs/ncrcdsll/epr13/).

Instead, they established clear academic goals and created a way to evaluate student progress. They also provided teachers with ongoing training, meetings and workshops to discuss day-to-day education issues.

“In a nutshell, we tried to create a climate where high levels of academic achievement and working relentlessly toward those goals became the norm,” said Goldenberg, now a professor at California State University-Long Beach.

The results showed up in test scores. By 1992, Felton outperformed the other schools in the district on state reading and writing tests. “We basically reduced by half the number of kids unable to perform reasonably well at the second- and fifth-grade level,” Goldenberg said.

Exceptions, not rule

But Felton and Hawes are exceptions. Although many individual teachers are successful with their bilingual classes, most schools or districts are hard-pressed to produce data showing that non-English students are doing as well or better than English-language peers. A lack of qualified teachers, low expectations of students, high staff turnover or vague academic guidelines undermine those schools.

The sheer challenge of trying to create a “schoolwide mindset” focused on student achievement, Goldenberg said, overwhelms and paralyzes far too many schools, especially those serving disadvantaged students.

“By default, it just doesn’t get done,” Goldenberg said. “There are issues of (low) expectations for these kids, and there are organizational issues that are hard to fathom, and which divert people’s attention from what matters most, which is keeping the eye on the prize.”

A University of California task force reported to the state Legislature in 1989 that the “largest majority (more than 80 percent) of Latino students . . . are disproportionately placed in overcrowded and substandard facilities staffed by less well-trained and more often absent teachers.”

Students with limited English, skills, said the report http://clnet.ucr.edu/challenge/), “frequently are placed in `bilingual’ programs which concentrate entirely upon English acquisition and, for as much as two years, abandon subjects such as math, writing, and science in which the students may be much more proficient in their native languages.”

Hakuta said conditions probably have not changed much since 1989.

“Bilingual education tends to be found in schools that are the least organized and with the highest concentration of poor kids,” said the Stanford professor. “These often are the schools most in need of improvement.”

Andy Dias used to be at one of those schools. When he arrived as a teacher at Cesar Chavez School in San Jose’s Alum Rock School District in 1987, the campus didn’t have a consistent approach to teaching bilingual students or a way to measure how well students were doing.

Students were in different programs every year. One year, they might be taught primarily in English; the next year, their days were filled with Spanish. The principal’s office was a revolving door, with no one staying long enough to offer stability or guidance. And teachers often did not have the appropriate Spanish-language materials.

Worst of all, students leaving Chavez were not proficient even in Spanish.

“Some administrators would hire teachers who didn’t speak any Spanish for bilingual classrooms,” said Dias, now Chavez’s bilingual coordinator. “They just didn’t understand the program.”

Bringing change

Fortunately, that began to change about four years ago, Dias said. Teachers at Chavez began a new approach to bilingual education that they call “immersion,” where students are taught in their native language but also exposed to English. By the time they reach fifth grade, most of their day is in English.

Superintendent Santiago Wood acknowledged the district has had problems in the past, but contends things have changed. “I think we’ve grown a lot,” he said, “and know that to make the greatest impact we must have a strong program with meaningful parental involvement.”

But many schools, such as Santee Elementary in neighboring Franklin McKinley School District, still grapple with similar problems.

Santee was unable to find a bilingual teacher this year for third grade, so most Spanish instruction is handled by aides, Principal Suzanne LaBare acknowledges. In second grade, there are no Spanish-language social studies textbooks. More than half of the 28 teachers are new this year. And the school is on its third principal in two years.

The bright spot, second-grade teacher Suzanne Naranjo said, is the school’s use of an intensive reading program called “Success for All.” Developed at Johns Hopkins University, the program uses one-on-one tutoring, group learning and a special curriculum.

“That program is so strong, it sort of makes up for the things not here,” she said. “I won’t say it’s a total disaster. The students are learning. The kids at our school love to read. But there’s no reason this school couldn’t be excellent.”

Unz: Most programs fail

Unz readily acknowledges that issues other than language contribute to poor student achievement. And he concedes that “carefully well-structured (bilingual education) programs are successful.”

But the vast majority do not work, he says, even after decades of well-intentioned trying.

As evidence, Unz points to a recent study by economist Mark Lopez at the University of Maryland. It concluded that students who completed bilingual education programs were more likely to drop out of school by 10th grade and less likely to obtain a high school diploma and obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Perhaps the biggest practical challenge in bilingual education is finding qualified teachers.

The number of qualified bilingual teachers has nearly doubled since 1985, but the demand has grown even faster as non-English-speaking students continue to pour into public schools. Last year, state education officials estimated the shortage of bilingual teachers at 20,923.

Several California universities have programs designed to lure more bilingual students into the profession. Among them, California State University-Sacramento’s Multi-Lingual, Multi-Cultural Teacher Training Center is trying to remove many of the academic barriers and financial problems that keep minorities from getting teaching credentials.

“Each semester, we’re graduating 25 bilinguals, sometimes 50,” said Duane Campbell, center director and a professor of education. “What I’m arguing is that if each state university did this, instead of complaining about the problem, we’d be impacting the workforce.”

Debating the shortage

Campbell and others are confident that by chipping away at problems like the teacher shortage, bilingual education can work someday.

But Unz says educators have had ample opportunities to get it right.

Getting rid of bilingual education “would represent the largest single positive change that could be affected by public policy,” Unz said. “What are you going to do about these other issues? Make a law saying schools have to be more efficient? This is something that can be addressed through public policy.”

But Goldenberg believes the state must keep trying, even though he is often awed by the challenge.

“Sometimes you’re optimistic,” Goldenberg said, “and other times you think, `Holy mother, how are we ever going to get off the dime?’ The only way to look at it is one school at a time.”

Mercury News Staff Writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.

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