Teachers Show the Way

One reason Prop. 227 may be working is that schools are implementing it more flexibly than it was written.

The initial results are encouraging, six months after Proposition 227 replaced traditional bilingual education with a nearly exclusive emphasis on English in the classroom. Pupils who could barely speak a word of English when school started are acquiring spoken English at a surprising pace, and some are learning to read and write in English.

This progress report, based on interviews by Times education writer Louis Sahagun with primary teachers at 13 Los Angeles elementary schools, is not the final word on Proposition 227. Only time and test results will tell if this structured English-immersion method delivers what its backers promised: rapid academic fluency in English.

California’s previous approach to teaching children who lacked English fluency was a hodgepodge, further hampered by uneven implementation of bilingual instruction, a severe shortage of bilingual teachers and ideological battles over culture and language. In the end, politics were too often put ahead of the best interests of the children and the wishes of the parents.

The result of this frustrating impasse was Proposition 227. Teach in English, it demanded, and do it now. But one reason the measure may be working is that schools are implementing it more flexibly than it was written. The Times opposed 227 not because of its goal–swift English fluency–but because it allowed little leeway in achieving the goal. In practice, however, many teachers have used Spanish to explain abstract concepts and help puzzled learners. The result, no surprise to anyone who has spent any time around young children, is that students are absorbing the English language like a sponge.

The new law took effect in August, shortly before the traditional start of school. As instructors taught only in English, and scrambled to figure out what was allowed under the new state law, some tearful children and their anxious parents complained that they didn’t understand.

Some educators worried that this untested approach would damage the self-esteem of children and hold them back academically. Yet, reports from the classroom indicate tensions have dissipated, more teachers are in a positive mood and many children are excited and eager to learn.

How much they have actually learned will be measured in the spring on the statewide standardized Stanford 9 test. Some education experts say they expect scores to dip during the first couple of years of 227, as English learners take the test in English at a time when they are not performing academically at even close to grade level. But whether or not scores do dip further, at least they will provide the many educators who are studying the effects of Proposition 227 a baseline and insight into what is working.

In the classrooms where the 227 approach is producing encouraging results, the credit belongs to teachers, who are proving they will do whatever it takes to teach all children. Many teachers were understandably frightened about the possible effects of 227. But a growing number of them have put aside their fears and pushed ahead to make it work. Good for them.

English language education must work in a state where the most popular name given baby boys is Jose and where a majority of Latino children, including many born in this country, do not speak English when they start school. Their success will raise the state’s overall student performance. Their failure could cripple their future, and the future of California.

Proposition 227 may not be the complete answer to the problems of bilingual education. It may not even be the best answer. But, six months after the law took effect, something appears to be working. It goes to show that little miracles can occur in the classroom when children’s needs are put ahead of adult agendas.

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