A better way to teach bilingualism?
One by one, Texas school districts are abandoning the bilingual education model that has been used to teach English to Spanish-speaking kids for the past 35 years.
Comprende usted? Léalo (Do you understand? Read this).
Last month, a federal judge ruled that the state's bilingual programming complies with federal law and has achieved some success, allowing public schools to continue to teach students with poor English skills the same way they always have.
But school administrators and teachers, backed by education researchers, have decided there is a better way.
They call it dual language.
Advocates say it's superior to the old model because it helps students develop skills in both English and their native Spanish. Traditionally, Texas schools have transitioned students from Spanish to English in elementary school, forcing them to abandon their native language at a young age.
This past year, the Dallas Independent School District launched a dual model in the younger grades at its elementary schools. Many other North Texas districts, including Irving and Grand Prairie, have started pilot programs. Some programs will launch in the fall.
"With Dallas making the decision to go this direction, it's a major shift for the state of Texas," said Virginia Collier, a prominent national researcher on dual language programming.
Dual programs are configured many ways, but DISD has chosen the most popular model.
Here's how it works: Spanish-speaking kids receive about half their lessons in English and half in Spanish through fifth or sixth grade. The goal is for students to become bilingual while they develop math, science and other skills.
Some of the programs allow English-speaking kids – those whose parents want them to learn Spanish – in half the classroom.
The old bilingual model works quite differently: Teachers start Spanish-speaking kids almost entirely in Spanish in pre-kindergarten and gradually increase English lessons. The goal is for students to learn English quickly so they can enter a regular classroom as early as second grade.
Some educators and researchers worry that focusing on two languages in the dual programs could hurt basic skills in the long run. Still others believe English is the only language that belongs in a Texas classroom.
But many teachers and parents believe dual language will forever change bilingual education.
"It's not a politically charged issue, not when you're with the kids," said Stephanie Bunch, academic coordinator at Rosemont Elementary School in Dallas. "We're just trying to help them find their place in the world.
We're in a global society now."
Need is there
The number of Texas students identified as limited English proficient, or LEP, grew by 48.3 percent between 1995-96 and 2005-06 to 711,000. It is expected to increase in the coming decades.
Those students perform well below their peers.
A Pew Hispanic Center study released in June shows there was a 60 percentage point gap between the limited-English students and white students in Texas who met the minimum requirements on eighth-grade math tests in 2005.
That difference jumped to 61 percentage points on the eighth-grade reading test.
It comes down to basic brain science, researcher Wayne Thomas says. The old bilingual model stops students' growth in their native language and interrupts the development of their thinking skills.
The students may learn English, but they don't pick up basic skills such as addition and subtraction. That problem resurfaces in later grades.
"The price of doing it that way and having the political satisfaction of having these kids speak English is that you slow them down cognitively,"
Dr. Thomas said. "They never catch up from that slowdown period. There is always going to be a gap because you forced there to be one."
How it works
That gap has prompted many districts to look at dual language.
Drs. Collier and Thomas – the most prominent researchers in the field – say dual programs boost test scores with about twice as much power as other types of programs for limited-English students.
This is how dual language is often set up:
Schools divide up the languages by subject area. Math lessons can come in English; science in Spanish. Once a child learns to add in one language, experts say, he can transfer those skills to his newly acquired language.
"You only learn to add one time," said Leo Gomez, a bilingual advocate who worked on Dallas ISD's program. "You don't learn to add again. What you need is the language to be able to express what you need."
To make dual work, teachers have to stick with the assigned language – no starting sentences in English and ending them in Spanish. And they can't favor the child's native language either.
"A child's ability to wait for the language that they're comfortable in is almost infinite," said Terrie Armstrong, who started dual programs in Houston ISD. "If they know their language is coming, they'll almost tune out the second language."
Most dual programs have only native Spanish speakers, but some districts are letting native English speakers fill half the class. Educators say the "two-way model," as it's known in education circles, has two benefits: Both groups pick up an extra language, and the students teach one another.
"The two-way model is like the Cadillac of dual language programming," Ms. Armstrong said.
But some question whether the limited number of bilingual teachers should be used to teach native English speakers.
"If you don't have enough teachers, how can you justify diluting the services to those children so other children can learn a second language?" asked Angel Noe Gonzalez, a longtime bilingual advocate.
Dallas ISD started seven two-way programs last year and plans to launch even more this school year.
Nora Ferrusca's kindergartners worked in pairs – one English speaker and one Spanish speaker – to color a map of the United States at Rosemont Elementary in Dallas this past year.
In the beginning, it was awkward, she said. One student's lápiz was another student's pencil. By the spring, English and Spanish voices filtered through the air in her classroom as her students played on the carpet.
"They're just used to it," Ms. Ferrusca said.
Stacy Caldwell enrolled her son Alex in the program so he could learn about another culture and pick up Spanish. She and Alex now check out Spanish books at the library. Some of his best friends are Spanish speakers.
"They don't always know exactly what each other is saying, but they are somehow able to communicate because they're kids," Ms. Caldwell said.
Still, Christine Rossell, a professor at Boston University, says learning a second language takes time away from learning basic skills for native speakers and non-native speakers alike.
"I'm willing to believe there are ways it makes you smarter, but it definitely makes a difference with the ordinary stuff you have to learn like grammar and spelling," Dr. Rossell said. "It's really as simple as time on task."
Last month's court ruling touched emotional territory in Texas.
U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice rejected arguments from Hispanic groups that contend the state's bilingual programming provides an inferior education to students with poor English skills.
Arguments over inferiority date back to the early 1900s, when English-only laws made it a crime for most teachers to use Spanish in the classroom and Mexican-American children often attended segregated schools.
The climate changed in 1973, when lawmakers approved a bill requiring districts to offer bilingual instruction if there are enough students who need it.
State lawmakers have encouraged schools to pursue dual language. In July, the state issued guidelines for schools that want to implement dual language, but the law still allows districts to choose whether to pursue it or stick with traditional programming.
Educators say it's often hard to get teachers and parents on board with a new dual program, especially a two-way model.
"If it's not looked at as an enrichment opportunity, it's not going to fly," said Gilda Evans, Dallas' director of bilingual programming.
Many North Texas districts are already talking about taking dual language to middle and high schools. Others are waiting to see how the programs go before deciding to expand.
"We can't just do it across the board and hope for the best," said Dora Moron, director of bilingual education for Irving ISD, which has a handful of dual programs. "We need to learn from the mistakes and the challenges and the celebrations."