Education

English Spoken Here

By David Hill — January 01, 1998 23 min read
Teacher Gloria Tuchman believes bilingual education has failed. So she’s leading a campaign to ban it.

Her 1st grade students don’t know it, but Gloria Matta Tuchman is a living legend at Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana, California. “She is our resident saint, you know,” remarks the school’s receptionist. Her colleagues speak of her in reverent tones. “We’re really supporting Gloria,” says fellow 1st grade teacher Jean Gross, “because the way she teaches is the only way. It’s the way we all teach here.”

Largely because of Tuchman’s efforts, students at Taft who are not proficient in English—about half of the school’s 1,080 enrollment—are immersed in the language from the time they enter kindergarten. The method is called “sheltered English immersion,” and it’s a radical departure from the bilingual approach required—with some exceptions—by the state of California.

In bilingual classes, students are taught core subjects in their primary language—in California, that’s predominantly Spanish—as they simultaneously learn to read and write in English. Ideally, by 4th grade the students are fluent in the language and can successfully make the transition to English-only classes.

But Tuchman is convinced that children are like sponges and that they are fully capable of learning English in one year. “The earlier a child learns a new language, the better,” she says. Tuchman has been using the immersion method for years to teach English to her mostly Spanish-speaking students. And not even a tough-talking administrator could persuade her to do otherwise.

In 1985, Taft’s principal told Tuchman she had to start teaching bilingual education classes—or else. “We’re out of sync with the rest of the district,” she recalls him saying. “We are not getting the funds that we should, and we are getting more limited-English-speaking students.”

But Tuchman and three of her colleagues balked. “The children are learning English,” Tuchman told him, “and our test scores reflect that we’re doing well.”

The principal, she remembers, “got all ruffled and said, ‘It’s the law. And lady, if you don’t like the law, then you can change it.’ ”

It was, Tuchman says, the defining moment in her life.

She and her three colleagues were charged with insubordination, but when parents at the school rallied behind them, the principal backed down, and parents persuaded district officials to allow the immersion program to continue. Tuchman took her story to the press, and an anti-bilingual activist was born.

Twelve years later, the principal is long gone, Taft Elementary is celebrated for its English-immersion program, and Gloria Matta Tuchman has become one of the most outspoken opponents of bilingual education in California. She’s been called “the poster teacher for the English-first movement in California"—and a whole lot worse.

“Bilingual education deserves an ‘F’ for failure to teach English,” she says, repeating one of her mantras. “It is one of California’s most devastating, scattershot, fiscally bloated, and ill-advised failures.”

Not everyone agrees. Indeed, many educators argue that bilingual education, when properly implemented, is the best way to teach English to students who haven’t learned the language at home. But a backlash against the approach has been brewing, particularly in California, where, according to state figures, 1.4 million students—25 percent of the state’s public school enrollment—are considered not proficient in English. (Half of those students attend schools in Los Angeles County.) Bilingual critics cite statistics showing that, in California, only about 6 percent of limited-English-proficient students gain fluency in English each year. They also point out that Latino students have the lowest test scores of any ethnic group in the state and the highest dropout rate, a staggering 40 percent.

Tuchman is convinced that children are fully capable of learning English in one year.

Supporters of the approach are quick to point out that less than half of California’s Latino students are designated LEP and that not all LEP students are in bilingual classes. In fact, only 30 percent of the state’s LEP students are enrolled in programs that use native-language instruction. It isn’t fair, proponents say, to place all the blame on bilingual education.

The teaching method, however, has become an easy target, in part because even its supporters admit that it doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. “Most researchers agree that children who begin their studies in a language they understand can transfer their scholastic skills to their new language,” a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times noted. “Well-planned and -implemented bilingual education programs work. But the hodgepodge of approaches in California trap too many children far too long in classes taught in their primary language, mostly Spanish, before they move into mainstream English-only classes.”

Last February, dozens of working-class Latino parents boycotted the Ninth Street Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles for two weeks because they wanted their children taught in English, not Spanish. The parents prevailed, and critics of bilingual education cited the boycott as a glaring example of how unpopular the approach had become, even among Latinos.

The boycott caught the attention of Ron Unz, a 36-year-old Silicon Valley millionaire who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994. Unz flew to Los Angeles to meet with some of the Ninth Street School parents. Inspired by their resolve, he decided to help bankroll a ballot initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education in California. The measure, dubbed “English for the Children,” would require that all students in public schools be taught primarily in English unless their parents request otherwise. Sheltered English immersion would become the law of the land. Teachers, administrators, or school board members who refuse to offer students English-language instruction could be sued for damages.

Unz, a Republican, has already raised nearly $500,000 for his campaign, including more than $200,000 out of his own pocket. The California Republican Party endorsed the initiative at its September convention, but state GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder is lukewarm on the proposed measure. “The Democrats are going to use this to call us racists all over again,” he told U.S. News & World Report. “It’s the last thing we need right now.” He added that the party “won’t spend a dime” to support the initiative.

Last spring, Unz, a theoretical physicist by training and the owner of Wall Street Analytics Inc., a Palo Alto-based financial services software company, called Tuchman and asked for her help, but the 55-year-old teacher was hesitant to sign on. She had spent years trying to persuade legislators to do something about bilingual education to no avail. She told Unz, “I will not work on something that is not going anywhere. If this is going to be overturned in court, I don’t want to waste my time.”

But Unz convinced Tuchman that he meant business, and he told her that he wanted her input in drafting a final version of the initiative. Tuchman agreed, and she became co-chairwoman of the campaign. More recently, the renowned math teacher Jaime Escalante signed up as honorary chairman. Unz called Escalante’s support a “potential breakthrough” in attracting other Latino opinion leaders to his crusade.

Tuchman, however, believes California voters will see the wisdom of “English for the Children.”

“It’s gonna go,” she predicts. “There’s no doubt in my mind. This isn’t even a Republican and Democrat issue. It’s people in general, and they’re fed up with the program. I mean, something has to give after all these years.”

Taft Elementary School sits in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of one- and two-story tract houses. From the playground, you can hear the constant hum of cars on the busy San Diego Freeway, a few blocks away. Tuchman has spent virtually her entire teaching career at the K-5 school, which opened in 1972. “I’m one of the pillars,” she says.

According to principal William Hart, about 65 percent of Taft’s students are Latino, 17 percent are white, 12 percent are Asian, 4 percent are African-American, and 2 percent are Filipino and Pacific Islander. “There are 16 different languages spoken here,” Hart says. Many students are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants, and they enter kindergarten not speaking a word of English.

From day one, the students are immersed in the language. But it is not, Hart insists, a “sink or swim” approach. Every teacher has either a Spanish- or Vietnamese-speaking assistant who can communicate with the children in their native language, and the teachers often use drawings and sign language to convey meanings of words. That’s why it’s called “sheltered.”

“There was a time when it was incredibly politically incorrect to think this way and to teach this way in this district,” Hart says. “And there were some major battles fought in this office. But I think that people realize you can’t argue with success.” Last year, Hart says, the school had the highest test scores in the Santa Ana Unified School District. “The achievement scores were just beyond belief. And those scores included our LEP students.” Now, there’s a waiting list for parents who want to enroll their students in the immersion classes.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and Tuchman is sitting in a comfortable armchair while her students—13 girls and three boys, all dressed in blue and white uniforms—sit cross-legged on the floor. With the exception of two Vietnamese students, all the children are Latino.

Tuchman, who has a relaxed, easygoing style with her students, takes out a book called Witch, Witch, Come to My Party and begins reading—in English. Every now and then, she pauses to emphasize certain sounds. “ ‘Witch’ starts with what letter?” she asks. “W,” several children answer in unison.

Most of the students are quite comfortable talking in English. But one girl, Liliana, seems confused. Later, Tuchman explains that Liliana just moved to California from Mexico and her English skills lag behind those of her classmates. Tuchman, who speaks Spanish, says she sometimes uses the girl’s native language when talking with her.

Some students, it seems, prefer to speak Spanish with each other. “And that’s fine,” she says. “We let them do that. But the main language of communication is English. I don’t have to use Spanish very often.”

After she finishes reading the book, Tuchman switches to a different topic: money. She takes out a ruler and points to a poster showing the fronts and backs of U.S. coins: quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies.

“How many quarters in a dollar?” she asks.

“Four,” the students answer.

“Whose picture is on a dime?”

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

“Which president was he?”

After a pause, one boy offers the correct answer: “The 32nd president.”

The exercise continues for 15 minutes or so, and then Tuchman asks her students to return to their desks and work on a writing assignment. She gives them each a worksheet with some letters and asks them to cut out the letters and paste them down on another sheet to spell certain two- and three-letter words: sam, man, pals, gab, mat, taps, for, on, hat, and are. Most of the students perform the task handily; others cannot spell the words without help from their teacher.

At 2:25 p.m., the students gather their coats and line up at the back of the windowless classroom. Tuchman leads them out of the building, where a group of parents are waiting to greet them.

‘The primary goal of bilingual education is to teach English. It does not do that. In this state, it’s a Spanish-maintenance program.’

Gloria Matta Tuchman

Back in her empty classroom, Tuchman—who’s wearing black slacks, a white blouse, and a bright-red jacket—takes a seat at a small table and launches into a passion-filled attack on bilingual education. “These parents want their children to learn English,” she says, “because they know that English is what the kids need to become successful.” The problem with most bilingual education programs, she is convinced, is that the students don’t learn English. “The primary goal of bilingual education is to teach English. And that’s exactly what the program is lacking. It does not do that. In this state, it’s a Spanish-maintenance program.”

It’s clear that Tuchman believes every word she says. But she’s been a zealous foe of bilingual education for so long now that her remarks sound a bit rehearsed. Yes, she’s a teacher, and a good one, too. (Her principal calls her “outstanding.”) But she’s very much a politician, speaking in polished sound bites and even distributing her own press kit, complete with a five-by-seven, black-and-white photograph of herself and a three-page autobiography that she’s written, for some reason, in the third person. (“Gloria Matta Tuchman has fought tirelessly to eliminate mandated bilingual education and to reaffirm the importance of teaching all students in English.”)

Tuchman’s strong views on the topic can be traced to her parents, Mexican Americans who spoke Spanish but who insisted that their six children—Tuchman is the oldest—learn English at an early age. “My father,” she recalls, “used to say, ‘The Anglos did us a favor by making us learn English. That’s why we’re successful. And we didn’t forget our Spanish.’ ”

‘Bilingual education can work if it’s implemented correctly.’

Joan Baca, principal, George Washington Elementary School

Tuchman was born in Pecos, Texas, where her father worked as a timekeeper for the railroad. The Matta family was poor. Indeed, for the first four months of her life, young Gloria lived with her parents in a boxcar provided by the railroad company. In search of opportunity, the Mattas packed their belongings and headed west, first to California and then to Arizona. “One of my father’s many jobs in trying to keep tortillas on the table,” she says, “was working in the cotton fields for a dollar a day.” Eventually, the growing family returned to Pecos. It was there that Tuchman experienced, as she puts it, “the indignities of racial discrimination.”

One summer, she and her siblings were told they couldn’t swim at the local pool because they were Mexican. Tuchman’s mother hounded the pool operators until they relented, but the incident left its mark. And when Tuchman was about to enter the town’s segregated junior high school, her parents decided it was time to get out of Pecos once and for all. They settled in Mesa, Arizona, where the family opened Matta’s Restaurant, which is still going strong.

“I lived through discrimination,” Tuchman once told a reporter for the Orange County Register. “I know what real racism is. It’s ugly, and it has made me a stronger person.”

Tuchman did well in school, and she eventually graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in elementary education. After working for several years in Phoenix, she and her husband, Terry Tuchman, also an educator, moved to Santa Ana. She began teaching at Taft Elementary in 1967 and has been there ever since. The Tuchmans have two grown children.

After her confrontation with the principal in 1985, Tuchman, a lifelong Republican, decided to enter the political arena. First, she ran for school board in the nearby Tustin Unified School District. She won and ended up serving two terms as school board president. Her primary focus, naturally, was bilingual education, and she was successful in leading the district away from primary-language instruction before voters turned her out in 1994.

That same year, she took her crusade statewide when she ran for state superintendent of public instruction, California’s top education post. She promised to end the state’s bilingual education policies, but she lost the race to Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and a member of the California Assembly. Among 12 candidates, Tuchman managed to place fifth, garnering 8 percent of the votes.

She didn’t drop the issue, however. She put her energy into a bill, sponsored by state Senator Deirdre Alpert, a Democrat, and state Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, a Republican, that, in its initial form, would have replaced bilingual education with English-only instruction. But as the bill made its way through the legislature, compromises were made that Tuchman believed weakened it. She eventually withdrew her support and lobbied against the bill, which died in committee. “I am not going to have a bad bill go on the books again,” she says. “I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”

Critics have portrayed Tuchman as a self-hating Mexican American who dyes her hair blond and sometimes wears blue contact lenses. But she brushes off the attacks. “I don’t care what you call me,” she says. “I know that I’m right.”

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, which is the oldest and largest Hispanic organization in the United States. Her late stepfather, George Garza, was LULAC’s national president. (Ironically, Tuchman was one of five Hispanic women honored by LULAC’s Santa Ana chapter in 1987, in part because of her appointment by then-U.S. Secretary of Education William 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,” admits Tuchman. “Now, I’m a thorn in their side.” Perhaps for that reason, she seems to take special pleasure in telling people about the honor.)

‘I lived through discrimination. I know what real racism is. It’s ugly, and it has made me a stronger person.’

Gloria Matta Tuchman

To Tuchman’s way of thinking, her battle against bilingual education is also a matter of civil rights, and she has little patience with mainstream Hispanic organizations—such as LULAC or 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, will 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 that’s exactly what it won’t do, critics of the measure say. They argue that by mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to the teaching of English, the initiative will actually 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, author of Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice. “But there are many successful programs, too. And now they’re in jeopardy of being wiped out.”

One such program is at George Washington Elementary School, in Burbank, about an hour north of Santa Ana. Located in a blue-collar neighborhood just off the Golden State Freeway, the school serves 720 students, nearly half of them Latino. About 150 of the children are enrolled in a transitional bilingual program that starts in kindergarten and goes through 3rd grade. By 4th grade, the students are doing all their work in English.

“Bilingual education can work,” argues 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.”

California legislators have made seven attempts in the last 10 years to overhaul the state’s bilingual education regulations.

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. The teacher 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. ¿Cómo es?”

The students shout out words in quick succession.

“Caluroso.”

“Bonito.”

“Divertido.”

“Feliz.”

“Bello.”

“Verde.”

“Fantastico.”

Children learn best, Hale says during a recess break, when they are taught in their native language. “Otherwise,” she says, “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 believes, simply doesn’t do that. “These children need to be mainstreamed,” she says, sounding a lot like Gloria 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 proposed 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.”

“I think the unfortunate situation is that the public is not getting the information about bilingual programs that do work,” says Eilene Marston, who teaches 4th and 5th grades at the school.

“I don’t think the initiative process is the right place for setting school policy,” adds principal Baca.

Of the 31 students in Miho Tyszka’s 4th grade classroom, all entered kindergarten speaking little or no English. Now, their conversation skills are good, but they still need work with reading and writing. “They gain confidence quickly,” Tyszka says. By the end of the school year, she adds, they will be doing just as well as the children who only speak English.

Nine-year-old Leticia Castillo has a mother from El Salvador and a father from Mexico. She wants to be a doctor or a teacher when she grows up. “I’m learning English,” she says proudly. “I’m doing good. I still have to practice a little spelling some words. In my home, I speak a little English with my parents and a lot of Spanish so I won’t forget. And with my brothers only in English.”

She offers to read a report she wrote on the desert, which her teacher has posted on the wall. Speaking in a clear, Spanish-accented voice, she says: “In the desert there are many things. In the desert the plants don’t need much water. The cactus keeps water in its skin because it has thick skin. Animals in the desert come out during the night because it is not that hot and they listen better. It is so hot you can cook an egg on a rock. All the animals are adapted to the hotness. It is so hot and sandy that some plants grow after it rains. The next day it is dry again and the woodpeckers drink water from the cactus.”

Baca wishes critics of bilingual education would come visit her school to see what a successful program looks like. Recently, she even wrote an open 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 the state of 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 regular 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 last 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 state Senator Alpert and state 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. But in September, the bill was blocked by Democrats in the assembly. Ron 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,” admits Laurie Olsen, 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.”

‘This untested proposal ... would impose a single approach upon all schools and teachers in this diverse state.’

Laurie Olsen, opponent of the Unz intiative

Olsen is 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 against the initiative in November. At a press 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 Gloria 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.”

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