In the bilingual wars, to the barricades once again

AFTER A generation of doctrinal disputes, uncertain approaches and inconclusive results, the thing loosely called “bilingual education” has become a condition as much as it is a solution. It is one of those areas where anything that follows the words “studies prove conclusively” should be viewed with as much confidence as the latest elixir from your local snake oil pitchman. There are studies that prove almost everything.

Now, with yet another attempt to reform California’s ground rules for teaching the 1.3 million California school-children whose primary language is something other than English — more than three-fourths of them native Spanish speakers — and with an English-only initiative on the horizon, the battle is heating up again. State Sen. Dede Alpert, a moderate Democrat from San Diego, is sponsoring a bill, SB6 — it’s co-sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Brooks Firestone — that would give local districts greater flexibility to choose >from the large number of approaches and techniques to move what are now called English learners into the English-speaking educational mainstream as rapidly as possible.

The bill, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, is now running into determined resistance in the Assembly, where it’s scheduled for an Education Committee hearing today . The opponents include not only the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the California Association for Bilingual Education, the organized professionals in the field, but also conservatives who don’t want any language other than English spoken in the schools — ever.

The MALDEF opposition has understandable historical roots. It sees “bilingual education as a basic educational need to ensure a high quality of English acquisition.” In the past — and in some instances even now — school districts that were not required by law to deliver specified services to those who speak little or no English provided nothing at all in the way of useful instruction other than the injunction to sink or swim in English.

Federal law no longer permits that: It requires relevant teaching for all children. But nearly 20 years ago, in the effort to provide more explicit remedies, California developed laws and policies that set stringent guidelines that at times were as unjustified as the neglect they sought to remedy. On some occasions, children with Hispanic surnames who had difficulty reading English were placed in Spanish-language classes even though they couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. Occasionally, when no appropriate classes were available for kids whose native language was Korean or Hindi, they were put in Spanish-language classes as well. Often, the exit criteria were so stringent that students remained in Spanish-language classes for six, seven or eight years. Even now, the time it takes many kids to “transition” to regular classes is far too long.

At the core of those policies was a theory — since revised but not abandoned — that in order to serve kids, the inputs, not outcomes, must be mandated, defined and measured. Alpert’s bill would reverse that by giving local districts the option to choose the best educational strategy — a full bilingual program, immersion in programs that focus “on rapid English acquisition” or some combination of approaches. Districts may already do that now if they get waivers from the state Board of Education, but that process is both cumbersome and highly dependent on the politics and social attitudes of the people who make the decisions. In addition, SB6 requires districts to develop pupil performance standards, to create school advisory committees on the programs they choose and to report annually on results of the approaches they’ve chosen. If they do not show sufficient progress, their programs for English learners will be subject to approval and supervision by state officials.

The Alpert bill is hardly a panacea in a state in which a fourth of all students are not native English-language speakers, and where districts, in their efforts to reduce primary-class sizes, are already scratching to find qualified people who can teach in any language. In his analysis of SB6, the consultant for the Senate committee stated that “no research using sound methodology appears to exist which shows that English or rapid transition to English-only instruction is superior to bilingual education.” But an authoritative federal review concludes that “the major national-level evaluations suffer from design limitations; lack of documentation” and other methodological flaws. By all available indications, far more parents complain about the slowness than about the speed at which districts “transition” their children to English.

But what should give the Alpert bill particular impetus is the specter of an initiative being prepared for circulation that would require all teaching in California schools to be in English. Under the measure, which is sponsored by Ron Unz, the electronics deep pocket who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for governor in 1994, and Gloria Matta Tuchman, who ran unsuccessfully for state school superintendent the same year, annual waivers could be obtained on petition of individual parents (who would have to appear at their child’s school each year to do so). Individual schools where 20 or more children per grade level have waivers would be required to provide bilingual instruction. Foreign-language instruction would also be permitted for children “who already know English” and possess “good English-language skills.”

The Unz-Tuchman measure illustrates how extreme the sides in this debate tend to get. It cites the same educational problems among immigrant children that groups such as MALDEF legitimately complain about, and it wrestles with the same pedagogical uncertainties. But the thing the two sides share most emphatically is their ability to make bills such as Alpert’s look like the very essence of sweet political and pedagogical reason.

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