English classes for Hispanic
students branded as 'return to segregation
August 11, 2006
California split over teaching
Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
These are tense times for California educators. Eight years after the state
blazed a trail and effectively banned bilingual education for English language
learners in schools, the issue has returned with a vengeance.
Last month a group of legislators representing Spanish-speaking voters blocked
funding for the state's board of education as part of their campaign to
reinstate partial bilingual teaching. The ensuing debate has been rancorous and
partisan, with everyone from English language learner and state governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger to software mogul Ron Unz, the man behind the original move
against bilingual education, having their say.
How the nation's most populous state acts over bilingualism is significant as
California's experiments are observed and sometimes copied elsewhere in the US.
The state is also at the centre of the national immigration debate - including
attempts to make English the official language. California's white Anglo
population is a minority according to the last US census and more than a million
people took to the streets in May to demonstrate for immigrant rights.
Arguments about bilingual versus "English only" teaching date back to 1998, when
computer millionaire and Republican Ron Unz drafted a ballot proposition to bar
bilingual teaching - where students are taught to read and write in a way that's
geared toward non-native English speakers - from the state's classrooms.
Proposition 227, as it was known, won the support of 61% of voters and became
law. It demanded that schools teach children "overwhelmingly" in English rather
than in their native -language. Students were to be given structured English
immersion followed by a temporary transition period, not expected to exceed one
year. After that, students would be placed in the mainstream curriculum.
But what critics have dubbed the "one size fits all" approach - everyone being
taught in the same way regardless of their language skills - has led to a storm
of criticism, amid accusations that the needs of children have been hijacked by
the vagaries of politics.
"It's not about educational issues any more, it's become an ideological
discussion," says Jackie Goldberg, chairwoman of the state assembly's education
committee. "It's insanity that's going to cost the state highly. The gap of
achievement has widened," she adds, pointing to studies that show
English-language proficiency declining among students since the inception of
"They need to try a different method," says Goldberg. "All they will lose is
their ideological mantra, 'Stay the course'. Stay the course is very good - if
you don't happen to be an English language learner."
Goldberg is among the group of Latino legislators who have attempted to
introduce a compromise approach. This would allow school districts to teach
subjects in a way designed for English learners rather than English speakers.
Opponents of that position argue that it would result in divided classrooms and
introduce segregation by stealth, the very problem that proposition 227 was
designed to address.
Roger Magyar, the executive director of the state board of education, agrees
that the arguments being advanced by those opposed to English-only, "would be a
step towards segregating English learners. We'd be creating a two-tier system,"
At the heart of the debate lies a disagreement about how language is learned. "I
learned English by immersion," Schwarzenegger wrote in an article published in
the San Jose Mercury News last month. "I took every opportunity to spend time
with friends who spoke English and practise English all the time. There was no
But many educationalists and linguists disagree, pointing out that competence in
the native language isthe key to enabling a subsequent transfer to a second
language. They also argue that acquiring conversational English is very
different to acquiring academic English, and that structured tuition rather than
simple immersion is vital if students are to close the achievement gap in
"We acquire language when we understand what we hear and read, not when we
don't," says Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, who has
spent years researching the issue. For him, the notion that students might
benefit from spending an hour in an environment they do not understand is
bizarre. "It is a terrible idea," he says, "and study after study has shown that
it doesn't work."
Krashen points out that bilingual programmes are common in countries around the
world, including several EU member states. "No -member of the EU has passed the
equivalent of California's Proposition 227 or similar anti-bilingual education
initiatives," he notes. However two other US states - Arizona and -Massachusetts
- have followed California's example.
However, opinions diverge on the merits of English only, and indeed of bilingual
instruction. Kelly Torrance of the Washington-based Lexington Institute argued
in March that Proposition 227 "has resulted in a large, demonstrable improvement
in English proficiency" as shown in the latest test scores. But a report by the
federal government last month claimed that the inadequacy of the testing regimes
of English learning made the results at best questionable.
Two extensive studies, one in California, the other carried out - and still not
published - by the federal government, also come to differing conclusions about
the two approaches.
"The five-year state study showed that it's not the programme, not the model,
it's whether there are effective practices," says Veronica Aguilar of the
California department of education. The federal government's study, she said,
found that students "instructed in their primary language perform better".
"The lesson to be gleaned," she says, "is that what matters more is the
effective practice and that there is a focus on English learners and that there
are highly qualified teachers. The districts that have been successful are the
ones that have a common vision for English learners."
In other words, it doesn't really matter what system is used, it just has to be
adequately resourced and well-practised by professional teachers.
"If you look at the composition of the state today, even if we stopped things
now, we would have this -significant population of English learners," says
Magyar. "We're in this for the long haul."