Texas: Bilingual classes to get second look

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Feb 2 14:23:11 UTC 2006

>>From HoustonChronicle.com
Feb. 1, 2006, 11:37AM

Bilingual classes to get second look
Texas education officials are ready to hear pros and cons of English

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.

janet.elliott at chron.com



Harold F. Schiffman

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