English classes for Hispanic students branded as 'return to segregation 
Guardian (U.K.)
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 Proposition 227.

"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," he says.

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 other way."

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 schools.

"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."