Texas urged to dump 'failed policy' of bilingual classes

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Jan 7 16:35:06 UTC 2007

Comment: Dump failed policy of bilingual classes

Web Posted: 01/06/2007 12:00 PM CST

David White
Special to the Express-News

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas to force
the state to end segregation in its schools. District Judge William Wayne
Justice ruled that Mexican Americans qualify as an identifiable minority
group. As such, like black Americans, they are entitled to attend
desegregated schools under the 14th Amendment. Unfortunately, due to the
failure of bilingual education, segregationist policies persist. Today,
one in six Texas schoolchildren has limited English-language skills. These
primarily Spanish-speaking children are sent to bilingual programs and
cordoned off from their classmates.

As a result, they lag significantly behind their Anglo counterparts. While
74 percent of the state's seventh-graders passed last year's Texas
Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, only 55 percent with limited
English ability passed. In fact, with restricted exposure to English, many
of these students never achieve proficiency. Among Spanish-speaking
students who have attended Texas schools for at least four years, nearly
30 percent fail to learn English, putting them at a socioeconomic
disadvantage for the rest of their lives. In response to this disparity,
several Hispanic advocacy groups have taken Texas to court for failing to
educate English learners. The solution, they argue, is to expand the
state's bilingual program.

Once again, Justice is presiding over the case. The solution doesn't lie
in more of the same. Texas should overhaul its program by replicating the
efforts of states that have made progress with their own immigrant
populations. Just look at California. In 1998, after recognizing that
bilingual education had failed, voters decided to replace the bilingual
system with language immersion. After the measure passed, school districts
were charged with instructing all students "overwhelmingly" in English for
the first time. Opponents of the law predicted disaster. Several school
districts resisted. Notably, San Jose challenged the provision in federal
court and won approval to keep its Spanish-speaking students in the same
bilingual education classrooms they were in before the law passed.

While the rest of California has seen a large, demonstrable improvement in
English proficiency, San Jose's students have lagged behind, dragging down
the state average. By contrast, Los Angeles has made a strong effort in
recent years to emphasize early English instruction. Its learners have
responded with substantial improvements on standardized tests, and the
district's progress has been impressive. It's not as if Los Angeles spends
more, has smaller classrooms or has a smaller percentage of children
living in poverty. In fact, San Jose substantially beats the state average
on those counts. Indeed, a comparison of those two districts illustrates
that any school can succeed.

Meanwhile, many Texas schools teach English as teachers do in San Jose.
Unless specifically exempted by the State Board of Education, districts
with more than 20 English learners in the same grade are required to offer
bilingual education or another special language program. That's why the
state's English learners remain markedly behind, even though its bilingual
education program was launched 25 years ago. Only in little towns such as
Cactus where 99.3 percent of elementary school students are Latino are
teachers finding success. Why? Because with a teaching staff that's 95.1
percent white, the district doesn't have the resources to utilize any
program except English language immersion. Consequently, the district's
test scores have outpaced the results of schools with similar
demographics. And because of her own experience, Cactus Elementary
principal Carla Tafoya is now a staunch proponent of immersion.

In a recent interview, the University of Texas's Alba Ortiz declared that
under bilingual education, it generally takes four to six years for
Spanish-speaking students to become proficient in English. But in Texas,
only 10 percent of English learners successfully acquire adequate English
skills to be reclassified as proficient each year. A success rate that low
is scandalous regardless of what method of instruction a school prefers.
Twenty-five years ago, Justice ruled to end segregation in Texas schools.
Clearly, the bilingual experiment that ensued didn't achieve that goal.
Now he has a rare opportunity to set things right.



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