No Easy Answer in Bilingual Debate

New test results reignite arguments about how to teach students

Santa Marians don?t all speak one language, but their kids are taught in one.

The debate over which is better, bilingual education?teaching students in two languages?or English immersion?teaching students only in English?has raged in California and throughout the United States for decades.

With 90 percent of students coming from Spanish-speaking homes in some local elementary schools, it?s an issue that hits especially close to home in Santa Maria.

So when the California Department of Education published the results of the California English Language Development Test?the new English language proficiency test?last month, critics and proponents from around the state and around the Central Coast were quick to jump up on their soapboxes.

Proponents of English immersion pointed to the results, which showed an increase in the level of English proficiency among students, as proof of the success of their teaching methods. Critics were just as quick to point to the fact that this was only the first year that students took the test, so it was too early to draw any conclusions.

And when each side can pull out statistics, charts, and diagrams that they say prove just how beneficial their methods are, it?s difficult to know what?s best for the elementary school students of Santa Maria.

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The debate over the effectiveness of bilingual education has been around for a long time. But until 1998, it was how many non-English-speaking students in California?s public schools learned their lessons.

According to several teachers who taught in bilingual classrooms, the type and quality of bilingual education varied from area to area and school to school. However, the goal was the same: to teach non-English-speakers to read and write in English as well as their own language.

The idea was that when non-English-speaking students enter elementary school, they need a bridge to help them catch up to native English speakers. Many teachers hoped that bilingual education would be that bridge.

And not only a bridge for the English learners?at the same time, the native English-speaking students were also learning a second language.

However, some critics said that the opposite was actually happening. According to them, students were either overwhelmed or only learned in their native language and did poorly in school as a result.

Ron Unz?who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Stanford Universities and runs a Palo Alto-based financial services software company?was one of the most vocal of those critics.

In 1997 he took the issue to the ballot box. As part of a grassroots movement, Unz drafted, underwrote, and led the campaign for Proposition 227, or the English for our Children initiative, as it was also known. The law?which banned any form of bilingual education in public schools?passed with a 61-percent victory in June 1998.

Unz agreed that because the English Development Test has only been around one year, it doesn?t show the whole picture. He feels that other tests that have been around longer, like the SAT 9, provide a better representation of students? education.

But, he said, because both the SAT 9 and the English Development Test show similar results, it?s not difficult to see that English immersion works. And when asked why some educators feel those results are in fact inconclusive, he says that?s obvious as well.

“All the supporters of bilingual education seem to be reluctant to admit they were wrong because they?d be admitting to themselves that they were responsible for destroying the education of thousands of Latino students in the state of California,” he said.

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Francisco Soto said that if he had to go through the public school system again, but this time without a bilingual education, he wouldn?t even make it to high school.

Born in El Salvador and raised and educated in Fresno, Soto says he knows firsthand about the benefits of learning English in a bilingual environment.

After finishing grade school, Soto received an undergraduate degree in Fresno and then moved to Santa Maria, where he?s finishing his master?s degree at Cal Poly while teaching third grade at Battles Elementary School.

Looking back and comparing how he learned with how he teaches, Soto said that the loss of bilingual education has done more harm than good.

“School is teaching kids to forget Spanish, forget who they are,” he said. “Now [Spanish-speaking students] don?t know how to read in English or in Spanish.”

Soto said he thinks the main reason English proficiency test scores have improved is that students have become better test-takers, not better students. And new students, he said, just get discouraged by the 30-minute tests and don?t answer all the questions.

“I try to encourage them and push them, but it?s frustrating,” he said. “I see kids that will finish the test in 10 or 15 minutes because they just give up.”

“Of course we want English for our children,” he said, referring to the name of the 1998 initiative, “but we want it to be successful. I?m not saying that [students] shouldn?t learn English. We just need to teach in their language, their heritage.”

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“There?s no control group so everything is subjective,” said Connie Vasquez-Sawdey, regarding how things have changed since Proposition 227 passed. “If you want to see if [English immersion] works, wait until these kids are in high school.”

Both Vasquez-Sawdey, who?s the principal at Robert Bruce School, and Outreach Counselor Lourdes Ramirez taught bilingual education from the 1970s to the 1990s. And while both women were hesitant to heap either criticism or praise on English immersion, they both said they had seen some things change for the better at Robert Bruce.

“The difference that I see is kids are communicating more,” said Ramirez. “They feel like they?re more a part of the school. They?re interacting more with the English-speaking kids.”

Vasquez-Sawdey and Ramirez said that while they?ve tried to teach their students the best that they can regardless of what language it?s in, they?ve found that students? parents have played a significant role in helping that process.

“Parents are really proud that students are learning [English],” said Vasquez-Sawdey.

“Our homework club, our parents club?parents are able to come in and work with the staff, and you can see how much that helps kids,” added Ramirez.

Olivia Bola?os, the principal of Fairlawn Elementary School, also said that families are a key part of the education process.

Over the past six years Bola?os has watched as the English Learner scores at her school steadily moved from the lowest in the district to some of the highest.

Bola?os said that it wasn?t one specific thing that caused the change in test scores, but English immersion has played a role.

“I don?t know if it?s easier or more difficult. It?s different,” she said. “We did a lot of staff development, and I think we know more about how to teach English to English-learners.”

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Many educators who deal with English immersion education see a balance between their desire to see California?s new generations learn English and to still have those students maintain a connection with the cultures they came from.

Soto, Vasquez-Sawdey, and Ramirez all said the only way that balance could happen is if parents get involved in the education process.

Bola?os echoed those ideas when she talked about her own fears that students are leaving their heritage behind as they climb the social ladder in what she calls California?s “English-only” culture.

“I?m embarrassed that my own kids don?t know Spanish very well,” she said. “Maybe it?s my fault. I think the blame goes to us as parents because we need to practice it.”

“As administrators, we need to encourage parents to keep speaking to kids in their primary language,” she continued. “It?s a gift that you don?t want to lose.”

?Sun? Arts Editor Abraham Hyatt also covers youth issues. E-mail comments or story ideas to [email protected]

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