Bilingual Blues

This is not the way your grandfather learned English

Adolescence muddles the process even more. As teenagers struggle to separate psychologically from their parents, they choose the language of their peers over that of their parents. In earlier generations, this meant speaking English. And frequently it meant that when you reached adulthood, you suddenly and sadly realized that you'd lost your parents' language.

Today, an immigrant child's peers may also speak Spanish or Vietnamese or Bosnian, making the transition to English less critical.

According to the U.S. Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs, there are 2.8 million Limited English Proficient students in the United States, nearly twice as many as there were 10 years ago.

But neither the Lau court decision nor the Bilingual Education Act prescribed exactly how those children's education needs were to be met, and that has remained a matter of heated debate all over the country. And, often as not, the debaters have little or no idea what they're talking about. The legislation, the rhetoric, even the public school departments blur the terminology, lumping disparate practices under the very specific rubric of bilingual education.

There are three main approaches. The overriding goal of all of them is to find some way to make sure kids keep up in their subjects so that by the time they learn to function adequately in English they won't be woefully behind.

Transitional bilingual education seeks to move students quickly from the native language to English, as one professor put it, "banking on the disappearance within the individual of the home language."

Dual language programs start out primarily in the home language with minimal English, graduating to a 50-50 mix by middle school. The aim is to produce adults who are literate in both languages.

English as a Second Language was originally conceived as a next-best-thing to bilingual education, a way to combine students who speak different languages into one classroom. How this is done varies greatly, too. Some schools place ESL teachers or aides into mainstream classrooms, other schools pull the LEP students out of regular classrooms for concentrated English instruction--sometimes for as little as a half-hour a day.

How well any of these approaches works is difficult to measure. In Arizona's lower-income school districts, as many as 30 percent of the children move to other districts and can't be tracked. They cross district boundaries from middle school to high school and no one keeps record of their successes or failures.

What the schools do know, they often don't bother to report to the state Department of Education: This year's education department report on English Acquisition programs included high schools that listed students in primary-school categories. And the figures showing how long a student receives LEP services may be skewed. For example, a high school may report a student as having had one year of service, because that's all he received at that school--even if he'd spent his entire school career in bilingual programs in the lower schools.

At best, 12 percent of LEP students in Arizona ever get reclassified as English Proficient.

"Everything we know about achievement tests and reclassification and self-reports from schools says that 88 percent of these kids never come out of the programs," says Superintendent Keegan. "It would be fine that they stay in the program if they were all blowing the top off the Stanford, but they're not."

At best they score in the 39th percentile, and kids in bilingual programs generally score higher than kids in ESL programs, a fact born out by state statistics.

Language, however, is not the only factor in their low performances. Nationally and in Arizona, Asians score as well or better than whites on standardized tests, significantly better than Hispanics in general (whether English-dominant or LEP). African Americans, however, score as low as Hispanics, and Native Americans score even lower. Furthermore, national statistics show that children who are eligible for free school-lunch programs do not perform as well as children who are not. Clearly, cultural and socioeconomic influences weigh heavily on test results.

"For me, the biggest disconnect is that we still have a classist system," says John Wann, principal of Valley View school. "Poor kids lose on [standardized] tests."

Some Asians and Hispanics come from literate homes and societies, while others come from remote villages. Their parents may or may not be educated themselves, and that feeds into the mix.

"It is certainly easier to educate kids from a middle-class orientation," says ASU's Josue Gonzalez. "If you have a literacy tradition in the family, it's much easier to educate those kids than if they came from the top of a mountain somewhere in Nicaragua where they've been shooting at each other for the last 20 years."

Keegan does not want socioeconomics to become an excuse for poor education.
"What's upsetting to me is the persistent low level of achievement," she says. "The overlay that bothers me most is the patronizing low expectation that these kids can't make it and therefore we have to coddle them. This is not about money. The bottom line is achievement, whatever it is."

How to do that? Schools are woefully lacking in teachers and resources for LEP instruction. There are no guidelines from the Department of Education and no law that would authorize the DOE to lean on badly conceived programs, of which there are many.

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