Bilingual classes to get second look
Jan. 31, 2006
Texas education officials are ready to hear pros and cons of English
By JANET ELLIOTT
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - The State Board of Education will consider the controversial topic of
English-immersion instruction as an alternative to the state's bilingual
programs at its meeting next week.
The board has invited a California school superintendent and a representative of
a conservative East Coast think tank to speak Feb. 9, opening a debate that
could extend to the Legislature.
In traditional bilingual classes, students are taught in their native languages
while they are learning English. In immersion programs, the students receive all
or most of their instruction in English.
Immersion advocates say the program takes advantage of the ability of young
students' brains to readily absorb a new language. In some states, students have
achieved proficiency more quickly through immersion, but other studies have
found the programs don't live up to their billing.
"We're not out to undo years and years of what we've done," said board member
Gail Lowe, who initiated the presentation. "But it's incumbent on us to be
informed about successful programs."
The board has invited Don Soifer, vice president of the Lexington Institute of
Arlington, Va. The public policy group believes in limited government and
market-based solutions to public policy challenges.
Also scheduled to speak is Kenneth Noonan, superintendent of the school district
in Oceanside, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Diego.
Noonan also is vice chairman of California's State Board of Education.
California's 1-year rule
In 1998, California voters passed a proposition that requires students who are
not proficient in English to spend at least one year in a structured
Board Chairwoman Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, said in a letter to Soifer that the
board wants to learn about "ways we as state policymakers can encourage school
districts within Texas to move into this model of successful instruction to
enable non-English speakers to close the achievement gap more effectively."
Miller said the board is inviting key legislative staffers to attend the session
so they might become better-informed about immersion.
Supporters of bilingual education from Texas and California also will address
Board member Joe Bernal, D-San Antonio, credits Texas bilingual programs for
helping improve achievement of minority students when compared with similar
students in other states.
"We have developed a program with a lot of accountability," said Bernal.
But House Speaker Tom Craddick said last month in a speech to the conservative
Texas Public Policy Foundation that there needs to be more accountability to
make sure students are progressing toward English proficiency.
School districts that have 20 or more students in the same grade who are
classified as having limited English skills are required by state law to offer
bilingual education. Districts often have problems finding enough bilingual
teachers for those students.
Though districts get more money for bilingual students, educators say it isn't
enough to help those students catch up. Those students are at high risk of
Soifer said bilingual programs segregate students and often put more emphasis on
multicultural studies than on teaching students to read and write in English.
Jeff MacSwan, an associate professor of language and literacy at Arizona State
University, said Arizona's experience with English immersion has been dismal.
He found that after a year of English immersion, 11 percent of students he
studied had become proficient in the language.
MacSwan said decisions about whether to put students in bilingual or immersion
programs are best made at the district level with parental involvement.
"Good conscientious educators can succeed in either model," MacSwan said.