All right, here’s your Sunday morning puzzle. Read the descriptions below of two classroom models. Choose the single word that marks the key distinction between them.
This model provides instruction in English. Students will be taught English language skills and academic vocabulary in English. Students will be taught subjects using special methods in English, with primary language for clarification, as needed.
This model provides instruction primarily in English. Students will be taught English language skills in English. Students will be taught subjects using special methods in English combined with primary language instructional support.
Before I tell you the answer, pretend that your child’s future literacy rides on your finding the crucial distinction and decoding its significance. If you choose wrong, your child will suffer.
Pretend further that your own English skills are not so great because you grew up speaking Spanish and never had the benefit of a formal education in English.
Stumped? The answer is “primarily.” We’ll get into its many nuances later.
For now, understand that this exercise is not faked. Many parents are making this decision for real. The descriptions were lifted from materials sent to parents of limited-English students by the L.A. Unified School District.
In sum, Models A and B constitute L.A. Unified’s response to Prop. 227, which brought down the curtain on the bilingual era. As you can tell, the model descriptions were written with exquisite subtlety and nuance. And parents now must choose between them and send their kids off with hope and a prayer.
You might think that the air of mystery would lift at the dozens of orientation meetings held for parents. After all, Prop. 227 was straightforward in its directives: children with limited English would be enrolled in English immersion classes where teachers are trained to build fluency quickly. Without delay. Without the endless diversions into native languages that was the hallmark of bilingual ed.
But no. At one meeting at Woodlawn Avenue Elementary School in Bell, the clarity was thoroughly lost. First parents were subjected to an elaborate presentation of two scoring measurements called SOLOM and LASSM. Their purpose in choosing classes was not explained.
Then the principal offered what she knew about Models A and B. It wasn’t much. She hadn’t been told more herself.
During the meeting a mother, speaking Spanish, asked what she should do with her 10-year-old son who does not read or write English after several years of bilingual classes.
Should he go to A or B, the mother wanted to know.
The school officials said they could not answer. It was up to the parent.
Soon after, the meeting ended, and the mother left looking bewildered.
We live in a strange time. Political upheavals are not what they used to be. Remember when Prop. 13 promised to lower property taxes and did exactly that?
These days Prop. 13 would probably get tangled in the courts for a decade and then emerge thoroughly muddied.
For Prop. 227, the unraveling has not waited for the courts. The erosion from bang to a whimper has started already. And–this probably comes as no surprise–the foggy language, complexity and confusion offered by the school district are part and parcel of the unraveling.
According to Alice Callaghan, the founder of a day care center for Latino children and one of the sponsors of Prop. 227, the success of the new program depends on immersion. If a student loses track of a lesson and needs individual help in his language, he can get it from an aide. But the teaching must be done in English. Otherwise, it falls apart.
And that gets us back to our key phrase in Model B: “primarily in English.”
It sounds innocuous enough but, in fact, it’s the code phrase that unlocks the true difference between the models. Model A, in fact, is what Prop. 227 ordered up. Model B is something else.
The “primarily” means the teacher will be teaching not just in English but two languages. It also means the teacher must be certified bilingual and most likely a veteran of the rejected bilingual system.
Forrest Ross, a longtime veteran of the bilingual system himself, developed the models for the district. “We had meetings with parents and discovered there are two basic beliefs about how children learn best,” says Ross. “One group wanted all English instruction and the other wanted instruction in the primary language.”
“Primary language” means the native language of the student. Since the entire debate about Prop. 227 involved the all-English approach versus the native language approach, the district’s “discovery” amounts to a no-brainer. Still, Ross says, Model B was developed to satisfy the parents who wanted the use of native languages.
But doesn’t that make Model B a bilingual class?
Not at all, says Ross. It simply means that Spanish will be used by a bilingual teacher in some measure.
According to Ross, that means using Spanish to deliver the backgrounds of lessons and their context.
Or using Spanish textbooks and other instructional material.
Or doing comprehension checks in Spanish.
In all, it sounds like a lot of Spanish in a program that’s technically described as English immersion. I asked Ross exactly how much.
“We don’t use percentages,” he said. “Because [the amount of Spanish] is dependent on the student’s proficiency in English.”
Which means, I think, that the less English a student speaks, the more Spanish will be used.
* * *
In fairness to Ross, he reiterates that lesson “content” will be delivered in English and that the total percentage of English used in the classes will be “overwhelming.”
Perhaps so. But a sample teaching schedule for Model B–developed by Ross’ office–suggests otherwise. I got a copy after it was smuggled out of a teachers meeting.
In this sample, only a single half-hour of instruction was scheduled to be delivered in English. The entire rest of the day was to be delivered in what the District calls “SDAIE with L1 Support.”
“SDAIE” is an acronym for Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English. “L1″ is district code for the native language of the students.
The teacher had scribbled notes at the top of the page. The notes said, “1/2 hour of English. The rest of the day Spanish.”
Actually, you could make a more benign interpretation of the schedule. But at very least it suggests a lot of Spanish was planned for that day.
* * *
So the simple has been made complex. Definitions blur. The whimpering proceeds.
Incidentally, to make very clear which program it prefers, the district is assigning all former bilingual students to Model B unless their parents specifically choose Model A.
In some quarters the district has been congratulated because it did not join San Francisco and Oakland in refusing outright to implement 227. In public, district officials repeatedly have expressed their desire to conform with the new law.
But it appears that the district’s real intent may not be so different from San Francisco’s and Oakland’s. You might call it a soft-death approach as opposed to hard death.
The subject of Prop. 227, naturally, is a touchy one at the district. One high official, who asked not to be named, made this comment:
“You gotta ask, who wins here? Who wins are the bilingual bureaucrats. They’re the ones developing the multiple programs and the paperwork forms that justify their existence, never mind that the system is deceptive and is going to leave the parents, the teachers and principals in a potential war zone out there in the field, with people narcing on each other. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats go on and on.”
As this official pointed out, Model B is joined at the hip with another fudge: the waiver. Prop. 227 authorized waivers, the idea being that in rare cases a student would need an exemption from English immersion. At the hands of the district and the state school board, the waiver has been turned into an open invitation for parents to demand a bilingual class for any child.
The district is cooperating fully in this maneuver. It has said that all waiver requests will be granted unless school officials have evidence that bilingual would be harmful to a particular child. Not many such actions are expected.
At the end of my conservation with Ross, he said he found it “frustrating” that some people believe the district is trying to undermine the impact of Prop. 227.
“Everything we’ve done has been determined to be legal by our legal staff,” he said.
Perhaps so. But right now it looks as if the simple goal of Prop. 227–to teach immigrant kids English by teaching them in English–will be so altered, and the results so confused, that we will never know whether full implementation would have solved our literacy problems or not.
We voted for it, we passed it. But we didn’t get it, and that may leave us with the greatest mystery of all.