Bilingual Education

Tongue Twister

Michael Amsler

A multicultural world: Teacher Jeanne Acuña assists second-grade students at her two-way immersion class at Cali Calmecac Elementary School in Windsor. Such innovative programs would be eliminated under a state ballot initiative that targets bilingual education.

Educators talk about bilingual education, and their fears for the future should Prop. 227 pass in the June election

By David Templeton

STRIDING INTO A ROOM FULL OF local educators, school administrators, parents, and students, Ron Unz wears on his face the expression of a man in the mood to gloat. With a wide, toothy, I-know-something- you-don’t-know grin and an energetic bounce–even standing in one place–he looks as if he’s about to burst aloud in a fit of giggles.

He’s the only one laughing.

A successful Silicon Valley software designer, self-made millionaire, fledgling social engineer, and failed 1994 gubernatorial candidate, Unz is the prime mover and co-author, with Gloria Matta Tuchman, of the highly controversial Proposition 227, otherwise known as the “English for Our Children Initiative.” To be officially decided by voters on the June 5 ballot, the initiative would ban virtually every bilingual educational program that is now in California public schools. The initiative is written in such a way that it would be well-nigh irreversible once in place, and would go into effect regardless of court action against specific portions of the law.

The measure, according to the latest Field Poll, is showing strong support among likely voters across the state. Which probably explains why Unz is gloating.

He has come this afternoon to the Sonoma County Office of Education building in Santa Rosa to debate journalist James Crawford, author of numerous books and studies in support of bilingual education. The debate is scheduled at the tail end of a daylong administrative conference titled “Bilingual Education Under Attack: Separating Myth from Reality.”

Considering that the verbal battle will take place in a room containing a number of people whose jobs may be eliminated as a result of his work, Unz must at the very least be given credit for showing up at all.

Outside, a band of protesters carries signs: “Ron Unz, let us choose how to teach our children” and “Help us be smarter. Let us stay bilingual.” A small army of security guards–in place for hours now and ready for trouble–walks the halls of the sprawling office complex. In an annex near the conference hall, several dozen families–Hispanic and Anglo alike–have gathered to watch the show on closed-circuit television. An interpreter stands by to translate.

“Let us all remember,” moderator Guillermo Rivas, Ph.D., director of bilingual programs for Sonoma County, is saying in his opening remarks, “to keep our hearts and minds open to what we hear today. We should remember that our goal is to do what is best for the children.”

Crawford nods gravely. Unz merely shrugs, all the while beaming his million-dollar grin at the crowd.

SOME WOULD characterize the controversy surrounding Prop. 227 as a disagreement between two differing schools of arcane educational thought, a fact that has contributed to the issue being surprisingly absent from the talk shows and other high-profile media discussions. But few would disagree that the initiative’s popularity is, in part, due to the same statewide mindset that gave a victory in 1994 to Prop. 187, which sought to bar illegal immigrants from receiving public assistance.

While Unz and his opponents debate the merits of bilingual education–Unz claims that it almost never results in native Spanish speakers actually learning English, a stance that is hotly denied by statisticians and educators throughout the state–public-opinion polls show that voters are affirming the relatively basic idea that children in California schools should learn to speak English, and learn it fluently.

The question is how.

“Bilingual education, by definition–and the way it should be done–is when both languages are utilized, English and whatever the primary language might be,” explains Rivas, taking a short break between meetings at Sonoma County’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction. “In bilingual ed, children are getting English-language development while being allowed to keep up in their academic subject areas–social studies, mathematics, science, whatever–in their primary language, while they need it. This way they don’t fall behind in their academics while they learn their English.

“That is bilingual education.”

According to Rivas, however, only a third of the non-English-speaking students are in true bilingual programs. What passes for bilingual ed in many districts is a loose interpretation of the 31-year-old state mandate first put into effect in 1967 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, and reinforced in 1976 by the Chacon-Moscone Bilingual-Bicultural Act. That law, requiring immigrant children to be instructed in their native language as they learn English, was abolished last month by the state Assembly, in part owing to the efforts of Education Board member Janet Nicholas of Sonoma.

As a result, school districts will now have the option to abandon bilingual programs or to keep them in place, according to the particular needs of the children in those schools. Should Prop. 227 pass, however, the point would be moot; bilingual ed will be gone, regardless of the instructors’ and parents’ wishes.

Most “bilingual” programs in the state are actually ESL, or English as a Second Language, programs, in which English is used for academic instruction, and the only use of primary languages is that required for translation. Two thirds of the non-English-speaking students in the system are being instructed in English-only programs, mainly because of a lack of qualified bilingual teachers. Since bilingual education has never been subject to any standards or controls, each county has been free to implement whatever type of program it sees fit.

“There is a variance between what is a good program and what isn’t,” Rivas admits, “based on what theoretical background and base each program uses.”

Understandably, the results have been varied, leading to incidents such as the one that Unz says first caught his attention: a limited boycott in 1996, by a small minority of the school’s immigrant parents, of the Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. In that case, which received much coverage in the mainstream press, the parents objected to the bilingual program out of fear that their children were not being taught English quickly enough.

According to Crawford, who spent time interviewing the parents involved, almost all of them have since recanted their objections after the full objectives of the bilingual program were properly explained. As a result, changes in Ninth Street’s program have since been implemented.

“No one is against trying to improve bilingual ed,” says Rivas. “But we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water. If the so-called bilingual ed program at Ninth Street School isn’t working, it makes no sense to dismantle the program at every school where it is working.”

WE ALL need English. Absolutely we do,” says John Lehman, principal of Cali Calmecac Elementary School, Windsor’s pioneering two-way immersion school, where English and Spanish are taught to both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students. “The more people that speak English in this country, the better for them, the better for everyone. But to really be effective in school you need a solid foundation in the language of instruction.

“You can’t get that in a short period of time.”

Yet a short period of time is what children will get under the Unz plan to place non-English-speaking students in English-only classes for a maximum of one year, or 180 school days. During this time their education will focus solely on acquiring English; no other academic studies or skills will be taught. After the year is up, these children will be placed in mainstream classrooms–one year behind other students of the same age–whether they have acquired enough English to be successful or not.

“There are two stages of language acquisition,” Lehman explains. “The first one is basic interpersonal communication skill, or BICS, what some people jokingly call ‘Margarita Spanish.’ You’ve learned enough English to order food, ask about the weather, ask about someone’s family members, all with a real good accent. You can get that in about six months to a year.

“The second part is cognitive academic underlying proficiency, or CAUP, what you have to have in order to think in the acquired language. [What happens] if you only have BICS, and you start getting into some high academic things like in a math class [and] the teacher is talking about area, perimeter, volume. Or, say, you’re in a science class. Pretty soon you’re thinking, ‘I’m lost.’

“The notion that anyone could attain fluency in a secondary language in just one year is a fallacy,” Lehman insists, “no matter how much we might want it to be true.”

Lehman is far from alone in his assessment. A small army of scholars and researchers has come out against Prop. 227, among them Deleane Easton, state superintendent of public instruction, and many others–the American Educational Research Association and the Linguistic Society of America are two distinguished examples–who have nothing to win or lose regardless of how the June vote goes.

“I don’t know what it says to the public, but to me it means something rather substantial if these bodies of scholars are saying that the Unz plan has no basis in fact,” says Jeff MacSwan, a postdoctoral researcher in linguistics and education at UCLA.

Asked if it is feasible for anyone to learn a secondary language in a single school year, MacSwan replies, “In 180 days? I’d say absolutely not. To think that a person could learn English in 180 days sufficiently well enough to be able to read textbooks in biology or history–if they happen to be in high school–that’s just crazy. And to think that after 180 days a typical person could write in a foreign language at a level appropriate to their grade level, that’s also nuts.”

What about all those tales Unz is fond of telling, about people’s grandparents immigrating from Germany or Russia or China, only to insist that their children learn English quickly by forbidding use of their native language at home.

“First of all, it’s doubtful that anyone was operating at a very high level in English after only a year,” MacSwan says. “My grandfather worked in a coal mine in Pennsylvania. That kind of thing you could do with limited English. But if you want to graduate from high school, if you want to go to college, and if you want to take advantage of the kind of opportunity that has been available in California and other places, then you need to know English very well.”

MEANWHILE, a crisis has occurred at Tomás Acuña’s eighth-grade English class at Cali Calmecac. “We’ve had our first infanticide,” whispers Principal Lehman, showing the way into the room, where an intense excitement is buzzing among the students.

All eyes seem focused on one chagrined Hispanic teenager sitting at the front of the room, forlornly observing the broken egg yolk and cracked shell that adorn her desktop.

The other students are guarding their own eggs, which are stand-ins for newborn babies in the weeklong writing project that has only just begun.

Faced with the untimely death of one of the “infants,” the class is debating, in perfect, unaccented English, whether the “mother” should be charged with murder, whether she should sue the “hospital”–and where she can get another egg.

After the yolk-stained student makes her case eloquently–the baby was broken upon delivery, it turns out–Acuña describes what will become of the class during the next five days: The “babies” must be supervised and protected at all times, and a series of essays–one per day–will be written on such subjects as personal responsibility and the hopes and dreams that the students each have for their child. The essays will be written in English.

“We’ve been doing this the last few years,” says Acuña, Sonoma County’s Teacher of the Year in 1994. “The work the students do is astonishing. When they describe their hopes and dreams for their egg, we see them describing their hopes and dreams for themselves, their expectations for their own lives. They express themselves very well.”

A racially mixed group, most of the students have been at Cali Calmecac since kindergarten. (Formerly Windsor Elementary, the award-winning public institution has operated as a two-way immersion school for 12 years.) After lunch, most of these students will shift gears to their math class, where they will speak only Spanish.

There are 60 two-way immersion schools in California, operating in only 32 school districts throughout the state. Working on a 90/10 model, students begin school speaking primarily Spanish–90 percent of the time. Each year after that, the balance is tilted toward more use of English until, by the time they reach eighth grade, every student–those who were born into English-speaking families as well as those raised in Spanish-speaking families–will be able to speak, think, and work at a high level in both languages.

Based on the level of articulation at work in Acuña’s classroom today, it appears that the program is a success. “It’s a proven success,” nods Lehman as he gestures goodbye to the class. “We have the statistics to prove it.”

Should the Unz initiative be successful in the June election, such schools will be required to ban Spanish in any classroom of children under the age of 10. Under certain circumstances, students over the age of 10 may be instructed in languages other than English, but only if the parents of more than 20 students per grade level per school apply for waivers.

According to the fine print of the initiative, once in place, the new plan can be overturned only by a two-thirds majority vote. If any portion of the initiative is challenged in the courts, all other parts of the plan will continue as ordered, beginning on the first day of school in September.

Furthermore, any instructor who ignores the rule against speaking Spanish in the classroom will be subject to “personal financial damages.”

Clearly, Unz means business.

“What this is really about is choice,” muses Lehman. “Windsor’s been tooling along for the last 12 years with a program that’s been producing hundreds of native English-speaking children bilingual in Spanish, and native Spanish-speaking children bilingual in English. The community is very pleased with the program; we have a tremendous waiting list. The program works–as do many other bilingual programs at various schools in the state–and yet if this initiative goes through, who cares?

“This initiative says we will no longer have the option or the choice to stick with a program that has proven itself to work.”

BACK at the Office of Education debate, Unz is still smiling. After an hour of colorful debate, in which he has repeatedly shrugged off Crawford’s numerous recitations of data supporting bilingual ed, his smile has begun to be seen as a not-too-subtle gesture of condescension and defiance.

Unz calls such statistics “utter, utter nonsense,” and has more than once stated: “You people only pretend that bilingual programs work because without them you’ll be out of a paycheck.”

In contrast to the teamwork atmosphere at the school, the overriding characteristic in this room is one of discord.

“He’s deliberately antagonizing us,” whispers one audience member.

As the formal portion of the debate concludes, dozens of people line up to add their voices to the conversation.

“Is it true, Mr. Unz,” asks one teacher, “that you have never visited any bilingual program or school? That you’ve never seen a bilingual program up close?”

“I’ve tried to visit many bilingual schools,” he replies. “But no one will ever allow me to. They must have something to hide, because no one will let me in to see them.”

In response to the numerous instant invitations shouted out–“You can visit my school tomorrow! No appointment necessary!”–Unz only reiterates, “No one will let me in!”

A card is sent up from the back of the room. Rivas explains that it was written in Spanish by a 10-year-old boy. He reads it aloud (“¿Mr. Unz, Por qué no vas a votar para mi escuela?,” then translates, “Mr. Unz. Why won’t you vote for my school?”

“Vote? Vote? What does he mean, vote?” Unz demands.

“Why are you working to have people vote for something that will eliminate his school?” Rivas replies, translating the reply.

“Well, if that’s his phrasing,” Unz mutters, still smiling, “maybe he’s been in bilingual programs too long.”

AS THE ROOM erupts in loud protestations of offense, a voice calls out from the back of the room.”It was me! I wrote it,” says Jason Freyer, blond-haired and beaming. A student at Cali Calmecac, Jason–a native English speaker–is visibly proud of his growing bilingual skills.

Finally, another instructor stands to ask, “Who will teach these one-year immersion classes [proposed in the initiative]? How big will the classes be? What kind of credentials will be required?”

“I’m not an educator,” shrugs Unz. “Those issues will be the responsibility of individual districts to figure out.”

Loud mumbling breaks out around the room.

“First they take our choice away,” someone loudly exclaims. “Then they tell us it’s our responsibility to make it work!”

Unz repeats his admonition that California should start preparing immediately, insisting that he and his supporters are unstoppable, and the event comes to a close.

“How sad this is,” remarks Principal Lehman, who’s been quietly watching events unfold. “Whether you’re hot or cold on the issue of bilingual education, how could you not want choices?

“If this thing passes, our choices will be gone.”

From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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