Bilingual Education in California
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JIM LEHRER: An update on bilingual education in California. Spencer Michels reports.
SPENCER MICHELS: In California schools, the battle over bilingual education remains pitched, despite the passage last June of Proposition 227, which was designed to eliminate it.
SPOKESMAN: Proposition 227 establishes a program to intensively teach children to read and write English as soon as they begin school. Vote yes!
SPENCER MICHELS: More than 60 percent of California voters approved prop 227.
TEACHER: And you guys can all read the page together and then we’ll let each one of you read it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Half of the nation’s children who are not proficient in English all live in California. Before the election, half a million of them were enrolled in bilingual ed, where Spanish is used to help teach. But the new law directs schools to place students with limited English proficiency into classes where English is the only language spoken — so-called English immersion.
STUDENTS READING OUT LOUD: I am laughing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, who authored and promoted the measure because he alleged bilingual was a failure now says many schools are not complying with the new law.
RON UNZ, Proposal 227 Sponsor: The vast majority really seem to be either trying to avoid the initiative, or get around it, or really just try to keep the status quo, as if the initiative had never passed.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although no statewide figures are available, many districts admit they have not eliminated bilingual classes.
(CHILD SPEAKING SPANISH)
SPENCER MICHELS: In Redwood City, south of San Francisco, the school district reports that 80 percent of Spanish-speaking children are still enrolled in bilingual. At Hoover School, the parents of these children have requested waivers that exempt them from the English-only classrooms. And almost all those waivers have been granted, allowing the bilingual classes to continue. Esperanza Magana decided to use the waiver to keep her nine- year-old boy in a bilingual class.
ESPERANZA MAGANA: I decided to keep my boy in a Spanish class still, because it’s kind of confusing for them to just change them from one day to another to English class. Right now, he’s getting homework in Spanish and English, and I think that helps him a lot, because they’re getting him into English.
SPENCER MICHELS: Proposition 227 allows waivers for children with special educational needs, whose educational development would benefit from an alternate course of study. The district argues that most children benefit from the bilingual approach, which makes it legal under the new law. But Ron Unz says the waivers are being used illegally.
RON UNZ: The initiative says parents of young children can apply for waivers, and if there’s evidence that that particular child, for whatever reason, will benefit from a bilingual program, then the waiver can be granted. Instead, school districts are simply providing mass waivers to all these students and keeping them in a bilingual program, even if the average test score of children in that program is abysmally low. And that’s what it is.
TEACHER: Measure. Remember we measured how tall we are over there, Clifford?
SPENCER MICHELS: For the 20 percent of Redwood City’s Spanish-speaking students whose parents did not request waivers, new English immersion classes were begun. Genoveva Quezavas, mother of a kindergartner, opted out of bilingual.
GENOVEVA QUEZAVAS: I want her to learn perfect English, the same as Spanish, because I can teach her the Spanish.
SPENCER MICHELS: Well, what was wrong with the bilingual classes? Why didn’t you want her in there?
GENOVEVA QUEZAVAS: Because bilingual classes, they are going to give more Spanish than English, and I want more English for her than Spanish.
TEACHER: Middle. Middle.
SPENCER MICHELS: This is the kind of class envisioned by prop 227′s sponsors, where English is used almost exclusively. Under the law, students will remain in these classes, learning English for a year, and then join the mainstream. Unz believes tests will show this method works, and that should convince schools to follow the law.
RON UNZ: Now, once the new test scores come out, and with legal action on our part, I think we certainly will see much higher degrees of compliance.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Alison Reed, who taught bilingual last semester, finds it frustrating teaching her new first grade class without using Spanish.
ALISON REED, Teacher: We can communicate in Spanish, but yet, we’re not allowed to by law. And so, I’m speaking in English all the time. It’s hard to really get much writing and reading going, because they just don’t know the words. So even though they see them on the paper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Berkeley School District is more adamant about keening bilingual ed. Here virtually all of the Spanish-speaking children were placed in bilingual classes using parental waivers. And Berkeley went further: It requested a district-wide general waiver from the law, and is leading a lawsuit against the state Board of Education to get such a waiver. Jack McLaughlin is superintendent.
JACK McLAUGHLIN, Berkeley Superintendent: Berkeley wants the right to be able to teach a student how to read in their native language. That’s what we want the right to do.
SPENCER MICHELS: But in a sense, you’re saying, “well, the people may have voted for this, but we don’t agree.”
JACK McLAUGHLIN: Well, no, we don’t agree. We don’t agree. And most educators don’t agree. It is not sound research or based in any kind of research that’s been done that says, you know, you jam students with English in a short period of time and deny them access to the remainder of the curriculum.
SPENCER MICHELS: Of the 400 students at Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks School, more than a third have limited English proficiency, and in the past spent three or four years in bilingual classrooms before moving into mainstream English classes. Catalina Jimenez successfully followed that path.
CATALINA JIMENEZ: My teacher, she would have, like, one day where she would speak only English, or a little bit of Spanish, and then, the next day, she would talk Spanish and a little bit of English. For some of the kids that didn’t know how to talk English, it was good, because the teacher would actually help them, and not just force them to talk only English.
SPENCER MICHELS: Now Catalina has graduated to a fourth grade all-English class, and Edgar is in a mainstream fifth.
EDGAR MORENO: I’ve got problems with some words, but not with all of them.
SPENCER MICHELS: When you have a problem with a word, what do you do, now that you’re in just a regular English class?
EDGAR MORENO: I tell the teacher, how do you pronounce it?
SPENCER MICHELS: Prop 227 sponsor Ron Unz sees continued use of bilingual classes in the primary grades, in Berkeley and other districts, as attempts to avoid his law, and to prolong the statewide argument over bilingual education when, in fact, it should be over. He says educators cling to bilingual when the test scores show it is harming children.
RON UNZ: Within California, children enter the public schools speaking 140 different languages. The only language group that receives large availability of native language, so-called bilingual programs, are Spanish-speaking immigrant children. And they are the one immigrant group that does the worst in school, with the highest dropout rates and the lowest test scores and the lowest rate of admissions to college. The reason they’re doing so badly is they don’t learn how to read or write English properly in the schools, since the schools don’t teach them English at a young age.
SPENCER MICHELS: But these days at Thousand Oaks School that argument carries as little weight as it did before the election. Kevin Wooldridge, a former bilingual teacher, is the principal.
KEVIN WOOLDRIDGE, Principal: I think that’s an oversimplified conclusion. I mean, you really have to look at the socioeconomic situation of each family, the education level of the parents, what the kids are exposed to, what kind of support they have both in the community and in school. Typically, kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds don’t achieve to the extent of middle class kids and upper middle class kids. That cycle of underachievement is not language-specific.
SPENCER MICHELS: While the education arguments didn’t end with the vote, neither did the political and legal. San Francisco’s school district is continuing all its bilingual programs, claiming it is under a federal court order that supersedes prop 227. The court directed the schools to provide equal education to students who don’t speak English and accepted bilingual education as a way to achieve that. By contrast, officials in Los Angeles, the state’s largest district, say they are committed to compliance. At present, only about 10 percent of parents have requested waivers and so the number of students in bilingual education has been reduced by 90 percent. Superintendent of Schools Rubin Zacarias says they must follow the law, though his own feelings about bilingual’s effectiveness are mixed.
RUBIN ZACARIAS, Los Angeles School Superintendent: We should and will follow the law, and Proposition 227, good or bad, is the current law. My issue with bilingual education was not the methodology but the fact that, in my mind, it was taking to long to effect that transition from the child’s primary language to English acquisition. In this district it was taking sometimes five to six and even longer years to do that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Many students in Los Angeles English immersion classes still receive some help in Spanish. The large number of waivers granted by other districts throughout the state has prompted Ron Unz to threaten suit.
RON UNZ: What these administrators and elected officials should realize is that to the extent that they violate the law, they can be sued and held personally liable by the parents of children whose education is being harmed.
SPENCER MICHELS: Advisors to newly elected California Governor Gray Davis are debating the best way to deal with Prop 227 and bilingual education. And Ron Unz is working to get a similar measure on the ballot in Arizona.