Education board considers immersion for non-English speakers
Associated Press

  The State Board of Education plans to discuss English-immersion instruction as a possible alternative to the bilingual programs in place in Texas schools.

  Supporters of both methods of teaching English are expected to speak at the board's meeting next week. The 15-member elected board oversees the state's public schools.

  In 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.

  Proponents of immersion programs say they capitalize on the ability of young students' brains to absorb a new language. But critics argue that the programs aren't successful.

  "We're not out to undo years and years of what we've done," said Gail Lowe, a Republican board member from Lampasas. "But it's incumbent on us to be informed about successful programs."

  More than 14 percent of Texas students, or about 631,500, were in bilingual or English as a Second Language programs last school year. School districts with 20 or more students with limited English skills in the same grade are required by state law to offer bilingual education.

  State House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said in a speech last month that the state needs more accountability in making sure students are progressing toward English proficiency.

  Among the speakers invited to the Feb. 9 education board meeting is Don Soifer, vice president of the Lexington Institute. The Virginia-based think tank advocates limited government and market-based solutions to public policy challenges.

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

  Geraldine Miller, a Dallas Republican and the board chairwoman, said in a letter to Soifer that the board wants to learn how it "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."

  Board member Joe Bernal, D-San Antonio, said bilingual programs have helped minority students in Texas when compared with similar students in other states.

  "We have developed a program with a lot of accountability," he said.

  Immersion instruction has not been successful in Arizona, said Jeff MacSwan, an associate professor of language and literacy at Arizona State University. He said 11 percent of students in a study of the program became proficient in English after one year in immersion.

  Kenneth Noonan, superintendent of schools in Oceanside, Calif., and a member of the California State Board of Education, is also expected to speak at the meeting. In California, non-English speaking students are required to spend at least one year in an English-immersion classroom.

  Information from: Houston Chronicle,