English Spoken Here
|For Tuchman, fighting bilingual education is a matter of civil rights.|
Her parents, she reminds people, were active in the Hispanic civil rights movement. Her father, Manuel Matta, was a member of the Arizona Civil Rights Commission. Her mother, Mary Lydia Garza, served as a top national official of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest and largest Hispanic organization in the United States. Her late stepfather, George Garza, was LULAC's national president.
LULAC's Santa Ana chapter in 1987 honored Tuchman along with four other Hispanic women, in part because of her appointment by then-U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to the National Advisory and Coordinating Council for Bilingual Education. But LULAC has always supported bilingual education, and the organization opposes Tuchman's efforts to dismantle bilingual programs. "I was surprised when I won," Tuchman says of the honor. "Now, I'm a thorn in their side."
For Tuchman, fighting bilingual education is a matter of civil rights, and she has little patience with mainstream Hispanic organizations--such as LULAC and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund--that have come out against the Unz initiative. Bilingual education, she believes, merely ghettoizes children who desperately need to join the mainstream culture.
The English for the Children initiative, Tuchman insists, would give Latino parents--like the ones who boycotted Ninth Street Elementary School--the right to demand that their children be taught in English. "This initiative," she says, "will empower them to make a choice."
But, critics of the measure say, that's exactly what it won't do. They argue that by mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to the teaching of English, the initiative will put strict limits on parents of LEP students. Waivers, they say, would be difficult for parents to get, despite Unz's claims to the contrary.
"There are weak bilingual programs, to be sure," says James Crawford, the author of Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice and a former reporter for Education Week. "But there are many successful programs, too. And now they're in jeopardy of being wiped out."
One such successful program is at George Washington Elementary School in Burbank, about an hour north of Santa Ana. The school, in a blue-collar neighborhood just off the Golden State Freeway, serves 720 students, nearly half of them Latino. About 150 of the children are enrolled in what is known as a transitional bilingual program that starts in kindergarten and continues through 3rd grade. By 4th grade, the students are doing all their work in English.
"Bilingual education can work," says Principal Joan Baca, "if it's implemented correctly with the right components. First, it's the staffing. You have to have teachers who can teach in the primary language. At the same time, you need to have a component in English, where children are learning to speak the language but are not losing one to two years of cognitive-learning skills. Most children cannot attain those two elements at the same time."
"Bilingual education can work if it's implemented correctly with
the right components."
At George Washington, students in the bilingual classes are taught reading, writing, social studies, math, and science in Spanish. This takes place in the morning; after lunch, the students are mixed with English-speaking students for the rest of day, with instruction conducted in English. "As they move up through the program," says 1st grade teacher Susan Hale, "more of their core subject areas are moved into English."
This morning, in Room 19, Hale is sitting next to a blackboard while her students--dressed in red, white, and blue uniforms--sit on the floor in a small semicircle. She has asked the children to think of words that describe el verano--summer. When they have enough words, Hale will help them compose a poem.
Hale writes on the board, "El verano. Como es?"
The students shout out words in quick succession.
Children learn best, Hale says during a recess break, when they are taught in their native language. "Otherwise," she argues, "they'll be two or three years behind their peers. And they'll always be playing catch-up." Yes, she admits, the children want to learn English, and they pick it up fast. "But we have to give them time to develop skills that allow them to process the information." The immersion method, she says, doesn't do that.
"These children need to be mainstreamed," she says, sounding a lot like Tuchman. "They need to be a part of the majority culture. They need to become productive citizens somewhere down the road, in English. But this is the bridge that gets them there. And without the bridge, we're asking them to jump into 10 feet of water and telling them they have to swim."
Hale and her colleagues are worried about the English for the Children initiative and what it could mean for their program at George Washington. "No one would put their child into a Chinese-only classroom and expect them from kindergarten on to be successful if their child didn't speak Chinese," Hale says, "and yet that's what we may be asking of these children if the initiative passes."
Baca wishes critics of bilingual education would come visit her school to see what a successful program looks like. Recently, she wrote a letter to the local newspaper, the Burbank Leader, inviting Ron Unz to come take a look. So far, he hasn't taken her up on the offer.
Not all bilingual education programs in California, however, are like the one at George Washington Elementary School. Qualified bilingual teachers--even though they are paid up to $5,000 more per year than other teachers--are hard to come by, so many districts simply find ways to make do with whatever staffing they can get. "Only about a third of the classrooms referred to as bilingual are actually taught by a credentialed teacher," notes Alexander Sapiens, an assistant professor of bilingual education at San Jose State University. "Thus, many bilingual education programs have not succeeded because they were not adequately designed or implemented."
California legislators have made seven attempts in the past 10 years to overhaul the state's bilingual education regulations, which officially expired in 1987 but have been kept alive by the state department of education. Last year's bill, sponsored by Sen. Alpert and Assemblyman Firestone, would have allowed districts to fashion whatever bilingual education approach they believe works best while at the same time requiring districts to measure the educational progress of California's 1.4 million LEP students, something that has not been done before. In September, the bill was blocked by Democrats in the Assembly. Unz seized on the bill's failure to further his cause. "It looks like the initiative process is the best route to achieving a solution," he told a local reporter.
"There's a lack of accountability and consistency in California's bilingual programs," acknowledges Laurie Olsen, the executive director of California Tomorrow, an advocacy group that looks at immigration issues. "Does it need attention? Yes. But the Unz initiative doesn't do that."
"These children need to be mainstreamed. But [bilingual
education] is the bridge that gets them there."
Olsen is a co-chairwoman of Citizens for an Educated America: No on Unz. Representing many of the state's education groups--including the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California Association for Bilingual Education, among others--the coalition launched a counterattack in November. At a news conference in Sacramento, Olsen called the proposed measure an "unreasonable and extreme experiment."
"This untested proposal," she said, "drafted by someone with no background in education, would impose a single, cookie-cutter approach upon all schools and teachers in this diverse state."
Olsen says the initiative can be defeated "once we get the message out to California voters." She's unconcerned by the results of the Los Angeles Times poll. "It's still way too early in the game," she says.
But Tuchman is so confident of the initiative's victory in June that she's already looking beyond California. "This is only the beginning," she says. "It's going to spread to other states. I know that. People all over the country are waiting to see what's going to happen in California."
The initiative, Tuchman says, is the last resort in her struggle to stamp out mandated bilingual education. The former school board member has grown wary of the legislative process; it's time for the people to call the shots.
"I will not trust the politicians in Sacramento to take care of the situation," she says. "I've given up on that. There are always compromises you have to make, and I won't do that at the expense of the children."