The language wars continue.

In Tucson, a small group of Hispanic parents and educators is working on a campaign to eliminate bilingual education in Arizona.

They do their work with the financial and advisory assistance of Ron Unz, the California millionaire who financed Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative that was passed in California in June.

The group expects to have its own initiative, “English for the Children of Arizona,” on the ballot by the year 2000. A similar movement is under way in Glendale. If they are successful – and if they model their initiatives after Proposition 227 – Arizona’s limited English proficient students will receive just one year of “sheltered English immersion” before being thrust into the academic mainstream.

Bilingual education is fast becoming the target of people frustrated by the way Arizona educates its language minority students. At issue is the belief that teaching a child through his or her native language in the earliest years of schooling will delay acquisition of English.

Arizonans whose children are classified as “limited English proficient” have a right to be suspicious. Their children appear to be caught in a school system that refuses to teach them English. However, their quarrel is not with bilingual education, but with the way second language programs are implemented in Arizona.

Depending on the school district, a limited English proficient student in Arizona may receive a wide array of services, from useless “sink or swim” submersion programs and bi-weekly English as a Second Language pullouts to minimal native language instruction. Two-way, or dual language, bilingual education programs are effective when fully implemented and adequately funded. They are also as rare as a snowbird in summer.

Ron Unz wants us to label the whole range of programs as “bilingual education,” and then target bilingual education for elimination. However, that action would be both unfounded and dangerous, in part because it focuses blame on a system that is used in fewer than 30 percent of Arizona’s classrooms. What’s worse, it threatens to destroy one of the best tools we have for helping limited English proficient students learn English.

Since 1982, two researchers from Virginia’s George Mason University, Dr. Virginia Collier and Dr. Wayne Thomas, have been gathering and analyzing the records of more than 700,000 language-minority students. Their study concludes that fully funded and well-implemented bilingual education programs are more effective and less costly than the short-term “immersion” type programs of which Mr. Unz is so fond.

The Thomas-Collier study is among the longest and most comprehensive analyses of bilingual/ESL education to date. Involving students from five diverse urban and suburban areas of the United States with large numbers of language minority students, it is one of the few to track students from kindergarten through Grade 12.

The results provide a compelling argument for retaining bilingual education: “Only those students who have received strong cognitive and academic development through their first language for many years (at least through Grade 5 or 6), as well as through their second language (English), are doing well in school as they reach the last of the high school years.’

By the end of high school, those students who have only received ESL pullout services will be no better off than if they had no services at all. They will lag behind their native English-speaking peers in all academic subject areas. The few who succeed will do so in spite of their schooling, not because of it.

There have been many short-term (one to four years) studies of the effectiveness of bilingual and ESL programs. All reveal little or no difference among the various programs. Thomas and Collier concur. It is only on analysis of long term data that significant differences begin to appear.

Therefore, when bilingual education’s opponents try to refute Thomas and Collier’s findings, it is important to note the length of the study from which their data is gleaned. If it is not long term, it is meaningless.

There simply is no credible evidence to support the idea that native language instruction hinders English acquisition. To the contrary, native language instruction appears to benefit non-English speakers in all areas of their schooling.

Criticisms notwithstanding, the Thomas-Collier study enjoys widespread support from the academic community. It can and should be used to help direct the future of bilingual education in Arizona.

Bilingual education has a tough fight ahead of it. Even its staunchest supporters concede that language politics, lack of funding and a shortage of bilingual teachers all conspire to make the job of implementing a quality bilingual program difficult.

Further complicating matters is the length of time that it takes for students to reap the benefits of bilingual education. Five to seven years is a long time, particularly in light of Unz’ insistence that, through immersion, a child can learn enough English to enter the academic mainstream in just one year. To immigrant parents who struggle with language barriers, Unz must sound like Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, Santa cannot bring the gift of English fluency. That can only come with hard work and commitment. Though some bright students with ideal home lives and high levels of literacy might learn English in just one year, the majority will take much longer.

One year is just about enough time to teach kids what researchers like to call “playground English.” That might be fine if all we wanted for our students was a life on the playground. If we want something more, we need to give them the academic English they will need to thrive in school.

All too often in America, our focus is on speed rather than quality. If a child is not learning English in one or two years, that’s just not fast enough. Well, what about quality? Meaningful language instruction takes time. Half-baked “immersion” programs may be politically popular, but they just don’t make sense.

Let’s tell Ron Unz to stay home.

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