The storm over bilingual ed

A real debate: That's what California needs to help non-English speaking students learn the language

“RACISTS out, students in! Bilingual’s gonna win!” That was the crowd’s chant at a UC-Berkeley debate on Ron Unz’s “English for the Children” initiative, which bans bilingual education, except by parental waiver. Most of the public comment consisted of denunciations of Proposition 209 (affirmative action) and Proposition 187 (immigrant bashing).

“English for the Children” has the signatures to qualify for the June ballot.

California could be headed for another bitterly divisive debate that misses the real issues.

I propose some basics for a genuine discussion of what policies might help more students succeed.

Everyone wants children to learn English well — especially their parents — and do well in school. People disagree on the best way to achieve that result, or whether there’s one best way in all circumstances.

Nobody thinks it’s bad for students to be bilingual and biliterate. People disagree on whether bilingual education is achieving that goal, or leaving students “limping along in both, masters of neither,” as a frustrated bilingual teacher described it to me.

Bilingual educators believe kindergartners may pick up “playground English” quickly, but take five to seven years — some say six to nine years — to master the “academic English” needed to read textbooks and participate in class discussions. Nobody else believes this.

On today’s page you’ll see columns by Alexander Sapiens, a professor who strongly supports bilingual education, and Lisa Dilles, a long-time bilingual teacher who questions how often the theory is working in reality.

They raise a critical issue.

Bilingual education doesn’t work if it isn’t done right, research shows. And bilingual education usually isn’t done right in California. For starters, only a third of supposedly bilingual classes are taught by a trained, truly bilingual teacher, Sapiens estimates.

School officials have been trying to recruit and train more bilingual teachers for 25 years. There are programs to help bilingual aides get through college and qualify as teachers, programs to import teachers from Spain or Mexico (who may not be able to teach in English), lots of waivers.

California can’t offer a high-quality bilingual program to more than a small number of students — perhaps 10 percent of English learners. So what should we do?

I agree with Dilles: Let schools do whatever works — based on measurable student success. But that choice won’t be on the ballot.

“English for the Children” has another answer: English learners would be placed in “sheltered English” classes, in which the teacher uses simple English, dramatization, context and other techniques to help students understand lessons. Once they have “a good working knowledge” of English, “normally” within a year, students would transfer to mainstream classes.

It would be fairly easy for parents who prefer bilingual classes to get a waiver for a child 10 or older, harder to do so for a younger child.

Let’s talk about whether it’s smart for the majority of state voters to pick the best way to teach. Let’s hear why pretend bilingual is better for Spanish-speaking elementary students than sheltered English, and why mainstreaming will fail for them but works for kids who speak Vietnamese, Chinese, Farsi or Russian. Let’s ask why the state hasn’t tracked the achievement of English learners, leaving us with virtually no useful data.

Let’s stop shouting worn-out slogans.

Joanne Jacobs is a member of the Mercury News editorial board. You may reach her at 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, CA 95190, by fax at 408-271-3792, or e-mail to [email protected] .

Is bilingual education working?
Find new ways to teach to improve achievement


SINCE 1978, I have been a bilingual classroom teacher, an English as a second language teacher and a bilingual resource specialist in a variety of districts. I have yet to see acceptable, measurable outcomes for most children whose initial reading instruction has been in Spanish. I define acceptable as at least 70 percent receiving Cs or better in classes taught in English by sixth or seventh grade.

Bilingual education was an attempt to remedy the high failure rates of immigrant students (usually Spanish-speaking) placed in “sink or swim” classes. We need to ask: Is it working?

It is unconscionable to have bilingual programs in place where only the brightest 10 to 20 percent of students are adequately prepared for academic work in English.

Being a bilingual teacher means running two parallel literacy curricula. It is definitely more work, and it is done with the best of intentions. But there is often a wide gap between good intentions and good outcomes.

Over the years, when Spanish-speaking parents have asked for more English instruction, teachers (including me) have told them their kids should learn in Spanish first. We’ve said: It takes seven years to become fluent in another language. Your children eventually will learn English and do their schoolwork in English.

Parents heard the theory at a meeting I attended last year. Then a mother stood up and said (in Spanish): “Se?or, you are talking about philosophy but my family is living it.” She said that she was not going to let happen to Juanito what had happened to big brother Jorge. Jorge had left elementary school reading adequately in Spanish but with only one year of English reading. He was three years below grade level. When he saw the level of writing middle-school teachers expected, he almost dropped out. She wanted her second son to start reading in English as soon as possible to avoid the same near-catastrophe.

I love languages, and speak Spanish, Italian and some French. I tell my students everyone should know at least two languages. I think non-English-speaking students need some help in their first language to get oriented when they start school.

But I have come to believe that my students need to learn English as richly and smoothly and as soon as they can.

Even if bilingual education works in an ideal setting, with highly trained, truly bilingual teachers and excellent English as a second language teachers, can many schools duplicate that? Class-size reduction (which is wonderful) has made the 25-year shortage of bilingual teachers even more acute. If the conditions required for bilingual education to be effective are so hard to achieve, is it a realistic policy?

I’m not endorsing the Unz initiative. I think districts should be allowed to design their own programs for students with limited English skills, and required to measure their outcomes. We must be accountable. If you say your students are doing well, great! Show me the data.

We can use what we now know about second-language acquisition to do a much better job than those old “sink or swim” classes where too many kids sank. But let’s move forward and prove we can meet our students’ needs.

Lisa Dilles’ bilingual second-grade class in Santa Cruz includes eight students who speak English as their first language, and 12 whose native language is Spanish, three of whom are making the transition to English.

Campaign of fear: Initiative ignores facts about bilingual education


THE “English for the Children” initiative sponsored by Ron Unz is being driven by deception, ignorance and fear.

The bulk of the research indicates bilingual education is the most effective instructional approach for limited-English-speaking students (“English learners”) to learn to understand, speak, read and write English. By learning subject matter in their primary language, students can work at grade level once they have developed “academic English,” the language skills and knowledge needed to understand textbooks and communicate in the classroom without a lot of contextual clues.

Unz defines bilingual education as instruction primarily in the child’s native language, other than English.

The real definition includes four components: instruction in English language development, instruction in primary language development, subject-matter instruction in English and subject-matter instruction in the primary language.

Bilingual education works if all four components are in place, classes are taught by credentialed bilingual teachers and the student acquires academic English before transitioning to mainstream classes.

Many of the bilingual education programs that I have observed are not fully implemented because they are lacking one or two key components. Like a car missing a wheel, they do not reach their stated destination.

Only about a third of the classrooms referred to as bilingual are actually taught by a credentialed bilingual teacher. Thus, many bilingual education programs have not succeeded because they were not adequately designed or implemented.

Unz blames the failures experienced by English learners on bilingual education. Yet, only 30 percent of English learners are placed in a bilingual education program.

His statistics also put the failures of minority students on the doorstep of bilingual education. Minority students account for more than half of public school enrollment in California. English learners account for about one-fourth of enrollment. So, more than half of minority students are not English learners and are not in bilingual education programs.

One of the underlying principles of bilingual instruction is based upon the relationship between two languages, known as the double iceberg hypothesis: The first language serves as the base upon which the second language is learned.

A high percentage of language learning strategies, language structure and vocabulary, and reading strategies transfer from the first language to the second language. Hence, learning their primary language enables children to learn English more effectively and more efficiently.

Further, learning subject matter in their primary language while they are acquiring academic English enables them to transition into mainstream classes at grade level.

We need to view the ability to communicate in languages other than English without fear. We need to view bilingualism as an asset, particularly in a multilingual global economy.

Alexander Sapiens is an assistant professor of bilingual education at San Jose State University.

Letter by David A. Appling
Letter by Walt Kilmanas

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