Board hears English debate
San Antonio
Feb. 10, 2006

Board hears English debate

Web Posted: 02/10/2006 12:00 AM CST

Jenny Lacoste-Caputo
Express-News Staff Writer

Online at:     

AUSTIN The debate over how best to teach students English has caused turmoil in California and controversy in Arizona.

On Thursday, that debate came home as the State Board of Education heard from proponents of immersion an approach that uses English almost exclusively to teach foreign language speakers and those who say Texas should maintain its nearly four-decades-long policy of bilingual instruction.

The board doesn't control the state's policy, but it can ask legislators to change state law to require the immersion method.

Board member Gail Lowe, a Republican from Lampasas, asked two advocates of English immersion for an overview. Supporters of bilingual education from across Texas were also on hand.

"English-only models deny access to an equal educational opportunity," said Elena Izquierdo, vice president of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education and a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso. "Many times students will leave the program weak in their first language, weak in their second language, and as a result we get a student that's illiterate in two languages."

Lowe said the presentation was intended only for the board's education though legislators were invited. Rep. Jim Jackson, a Republican from Carrollton, was at the meeting and Reps. Jeff Wentworth, of San Antonio, and Jerry Madden, of Plano, both Republicans, sent staff.

At the same time as the presentation, a federal lawsuit was filed Thursday in Tyler asking the state to improve supervision over English as a Second Language and bilingual education programs, the Associated Press reported.

The lawsuit filed by Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Multicultural Training, Education and Advocacy, Inc., asks that the Texas Education Agency be ordered to develop a monitoring system to ensure students who are learning English don't fall behind.

At the meeting, nearly 25 bilingual teachers, college professors and researchers decried English immersion. The only people who spoke in its favor were the two out-of-state presenters: a school district director from California and a Washington-based think tank representative.

Mary Urelius, a director with the Oceanside Unified School District in California, said structured English immersion has been a success.

Since California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, teachers can speak only English for the first 30 days of school. They can clarify instructions using Spanish after the first 30 days, and the students receive at least 45 minutes of targeted English language instruction each day.

Don Soiffer, vice president of the Lexington Institute, has studied the impact of Proposition 227 and said it is benefiting children learning English in California's public schools. "There have been strong, steady gains in English proficiency in the last three years," Soiffer said.

But Stephen Krashen, a professor at the University of Southern California, said those gains may not be valid for a number of reasons. For example, test scores in Oceanside were extremely low prior to Proposition 227.

"We think because of a bad bilingual program," Krashen said.

The state switched tests the same year the law went into effect.

A generation of Hispanic Texans was educated using what many consider a cruel version of English immersion. Children were banned from using Spanish and were punished, often ostracized, if they did. Complaints led to a change in state law in 1969 that required schools to provide bilingual education.

"English only has already been tried here and it was a failed experiment," said Debra Palmer, an assistant professor in the bilingual program at UT-Austin.

Since the 1969 law, Texas has been a leader in bilingual education, using the foundation of a child's native language to teach not only English, but other academic subjects. Students slowly transition to all-English classes.

Now the state has more than 200 dual language programs designed to help develop command of Spanish while teaching English at the same time.

"We lead the nation in this field," Izquierdo said. "Everyone looks to Texas."

Wentworth said he will keep an open mind about immersion.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said she wouldn't rule out immersion, but she isn't convinced either.

"I would have to see some strong, hard, evidence-based research that proves it because I'm not going to gamble on the future of these kids," said Van de Putte, a member of the Senate's Education Committee.

Wayne Wright, a professor of bilingual and bicultural studies at the University of Texas San Antonio was a bilingual teacher in California and studied English immersion education in Arizona before coming to Texas.

"There is no evidence that shows structured English immersion is superior to bilingual education," he said.

"The bottom line is they need to follow our example in Texas. We don't need to follow their mistakes.

Staff Writer Michelle M. Martinez contributed to this report.