Bilingual classes to get second look
Houston Chronicle
Jan. 31, 2006

Texas education officials are ready to hear pros and cons of English immersion

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 English-immersion classroom.

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 the board.

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 dropping out.

Soifer said bilingual programs segregate students and often put more emphasis on multicultural studies than on teaching students to read and write in English.

Arizona's disappointment

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.