LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
May 25, 1998
What is the best way to teach language skills to non-English speaking children? In California, supporters of Proposition 227 say schools should immerse students in English as soon as possible. If it is successful, the proposition could spell the end to bilingual education in the state.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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February 11, 1997:
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January 23, 1997
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January 9, 1997:
A report on the disparity between minority and caucasian children's literacy rates.
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Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of education.
Ron Unz's "English for the Children"
The National Association for Bilingual Education
The Department of Education
SPENCER MICHELS: If Proposition 227 on California's June 2nd ballot passes, instruction in two languages, like this, probably will end. The proposition seeks to severely curtail bilingual education in public schools. About a third of all non-English speaking children-just under half a million-are enrolled in bilingual classes of one sort or another. The proposition--put on the ballot by initiative-is the brainchild of Ron Unz, successful Silicon Valley software entrepreneur and one-time Republican candidate for governor-now a crusader to end bilingual education. He says his goal is simple:
What is Proposition 227?
RON UNZ: Teaching English to children as soon as possible once they entered school. It's taking young children who don't know the language, putting them in a classroom with the other children who are learning the language, and having them intensively talk English for a period of a new months, up to a year, until they've learned enough English to be mainstreamed.
SPENCER MICHELS: What Unz wants to eliminate is the use of Spanish or other foreign languages in non-language classes like math or science. Bilingual schools use that technique to try to keep students from falling behind in academic subjects. Those students are eased into speaking English in other classes, with more and more English as they get older.
RON UNZ: The current system of bilingual education in California is an utter unmitigated disaster. Right now, after 30 years of trying to make this system work, a quarter of all the children in California public schools don't know English, and of the ones who don't know English, each year in California only about five or six percent learn English.
SPENCER MICHELS: Opponents of 277 say those statistics are faulty and that there is no evidence children in bilingual education learn English less well or less quickly than those in English-only classes. Unz's initiative would allow parents to sue teachers and administrators if their children aren't taught entirely in English. The measure also calls for one year of intensive English classes in most cases for non-English speakers. It allows school board to continue bilingual ed, but only if enough parents request a waiver.
Putting the proposition in the context of immigration.
Prop 277 comes at a time when California's population is becoming more Hispanic, more Asian, and less white. Currently 29 percent of Californians are Hispanic, and 11 percent Asian. In two years whites will be a minority. Fears about excessive immigration led to the passage of Proposition 187 in 1996-that cut back on services for immigrants. The courts held it unconstitutional. Those same fears have bolstered support for 277, according to Rosita Apodaca, in charge of San Francisco's bilingual program.
ROSITA APODACA: Certainly when demographics in a state are changing as dramatically as they are, we know that that instills an awful lot of fear and angst in people, and certainly they react in a very dramatic fashion.
SPENCER MICHELS: In California public schools, 1.4 million students-or a quarter of the total-have limited English proficiency-a nearly 300 percent increase since 1980. Nearly 80 percent speak Spanish-one of 82 languages spoken. Bilingual services-like those offered at San Jose's River Glen School-use 1.2 percent of California's entire K-12 education budget. Opponents of Prop 227 point to River Glen-an elementary school-as an example of bilingual education that works. Its 470 students-70 percent of them Hispanic-are expected to be completely bilingual by graduation. The principal--Cecilia Barrie-is a native of Cuba.
CECILIA BARRIE: Basically ,bilingual education means that you instruct in the primary language until the child learns enough English to continue instruction in English. If you have quality instruction and quality English as a second language program, it will work.
SPENCER MICHELS: What has been the result?
CECILIA BARRIE: The results are that our graduates, when they leave our school in sixth and seventh grades, they speak two languages, they read and write two languages, they continue doing well academically in English only.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mary Dorrego, who teaches sixth grade and is also a parent, thinks something is lost when kids are forced into English-only classes.
Is there a loss of culture in English-only schools?
MARRY DORREGO: What happens is they lose their own culture; they lose their own identity; and the kids, young children, are going to learn English. My own son's first language is Spanish, and you look around here, everything is English. His baseball teams are English. His Power Rangers are English, his friends on the block are English speakers. And the struggle is not learning the English; the struggle is maintaining the Spanish, because the children grow up in English all around them, and they're going to get English.
RON UNZ: The parents themselves of these children want their children to be taught English as quickly as possible. I mean, most parents feel that the culture of the family background is more the responsibility of the family, and that the school's responsibility is teaching children--giving children the educational tools they need to succeed in our society.
FERNANDO VEGA: All these people here-that's my son-he's bilingual. That's Lloyd; he's bilingual. That's Fernandez; he's bilingual. That's David; he's bilingual.
SPENCER MICHELS: Fernando Vega-a 75-year-old grandfather, a retired aircraft mechanic, and former school board member, is one of the initiative's sponsors. He thinks bilingual education is completely wrong.
FERNANDO VEGA: We have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group. Our kids are not learning. So it has been a failure.
SPENCER MICHELS: Vega says Hispanics are skeptical of bilingual ed. As a community leader, he says Hispanic neighbors come to him complaining about the program.
FERNANDO VEGA: I say what's your problem? "I have two children. I clean houses for a living, but I want my children to learn English, and I'll pay you whatever it takes." I said, "Senora, how about these schools?" "No, Senor, the school don't teach them English--only Spanish. I can do that at home and do a better job."
SPENCER MICHELS: All sides acknowledge problems with bilingual education: the programs are vastly uneven from school to school; it takes many kids too long to learn English; there's a shortage of trained teachers and textbooks; and there is no accountability , no requirement to be sure the programs work. Those shortcomings hit home with many Hispanic voters, who, polls show, are evenly split on the proposition. Unz and his side are using Hispanic voices to attract more support, much to the chagrin of bilingual advocates. "Prop 227" commercials are in Spanish and English.
Hispanic voters are split on the proposition.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Unless schools teach children to read and write English, they may be trapped in the same hard life.
SPENCER MICHELS: Opponents of the proposition include school boards and teachers organizations. Their commercials argue that the alternative to bilingual will cost more than the current classes.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Proposition 227 appropriates $50 million a year for a new spending program.
PERSON ON COMMERCIAL: And it won't go to our schools.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: The PTA says no on 227.
SPENCER MICHELS: Principal Cecilia Barrie says while there may be problems with bilingual at some schools, Prop 227 is not the answer.
CECILIA BARRIE: If we need to fix bilingual education, let's fix it, but let's not eliminate it.
SPENCER MICHELS: The California legislature recently passed a measure to reform bilingual education, after years of argument. The governor vetoed it; and then endorsed Prop 227. Detractors say legislative reforms are too little, too late. At Lincoln High School in San Francisco, where 22 percent of the 2,400 students are enrolled in bilingual classes, bilingual coordinator Fan Fang says Prop 227 is far too extreme. He says it will be a disaster for non-English speaking kids, especially for older children who have come to America not speaking English.
FAN FANG: They will be placed into a so-called English language classroom, and regardless of their age, based on their proficiency, and then after a year they have to go to regular classrooms. That creates a big problem to the regular teachers.
SPENCER MICHELS: How do you know?
FAN FANG: Because it's impossible for anybody to learn a language for one year and then master all the academics.
SPENCER MICHELS: Fang's Cantonese literature class is all in Chinese, so these freshmen can feel confident while they learn. But in other classes these same students-especially English grammar and literature-English is used. In this bilingual science class half the students speak Chinese as their first language. The instruction is in Chinese but the worksheets are in English. The English speakers in the class are learning Chinese. In other words, both groups of students are becoming proficient in two languages while learning science.
SPOKESPERSON: We think that by changing the language that will be the silver bullet for the kids.
SPENCER MICHELS: At Stanford's School of Education , academics say the Proposition 227 debate focuses on learning English, when the real problem is low overall achievement that ties into poverty. Professor Kenji Hakuta teaches future bilingual teachers.
KENJI HAKUTA: In California 80 percent of the kids who are limited English proficient are Spanish speakers. They come from families where the parents may have less of a history of formal education, high rates of poverty, schools that are poorly equipped, inadequately trained teachers, those kinds of conditions, and that sort of is true, regardless of whether you're in a bilingual or an English-only program.
SPENCER MICHELS: Two-thirds of voters polled now say they are in favor of Proposition 227. But all four major candidates for governor-both Democrats and Republican-plus President Clinton have come out against Prop 227. Meanwhile, English-only advocates around the country will be watching California's election, with an eye to eliminating bilingual education in the 48 other states where it currently exists.