Project Aims To Bridge Gap Between Research, Classroom

April 01, 1987 23 min read

Bilingual-education advocates took sharp issue with the American Institutes of Research in 1978, when it published a study concluding that the Bilingual Education Act had had no “consistent significant impact’’ in its 10 years of existence.

At the same time, however, educators conceded that there were serious problems with the quality of many bilingual-education programs.

“While the AIR study can and should be faulted for its inadequacies,’' wrote Rudolph C. Troike, then director of the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, “not all of the negative findings can be easily dismissed, and bilingual educators should take this report seriously as a challenge to improve the quality of programs. To ignore it because of its weaknesses and pretend that all is well would be disastrous for bilingual education, as well as for the students it is intended to serve.’'

It was in this context that the “case studies’’ project began.

California has the nation’s most prescriptive bilingual-education law. Among its other stipulations, the statute tells school districts when to provide bilingual programs, how to label children as limited-English-proficient, when LEP children are ready to join the mainstream, and how to compensate for a shortage of bilingual teachers.

The law “has been very beneficial,’' says Fred Tempes, a bilingual-education consultant in the California State Department of Education. “But the law by itself isn’t sufficient.’' High-quality programs for LEP children cannot be legislated, he says. Instead, school districts need to see models of successful approaches that they can adapt for their own students.

In an effort “to bridge the gap between educational research and program practices,’' the state bilingual-education office launched “Case Studies in Bilingual Education’’ in 1980.

The project’s first task was to summarize the state of the art in second-language acquisition. Articles were solicited from researchers in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and literacy. Contributors included Jim Cummins, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Stephen D. Krashen, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California.

The resulting work, Schooling and Language-Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework, was published in December 1981. It provided a comprehensive description of second-language-acquisition theory and outlined practical implications for the classroom.

Meanwhile, the state bilingual-education office sought out schools where the theory’s validity could be tested. Through a computer search, it identified 134 schools that met the necessary criteria: K-6 programs, large concentrations of LEP children whose native language was Spanish, and “a core group of qualified bilingual teachers.’'

Of the 30 schools that expressed interest, five were selected for the project in late 1981. The sites were geographically and demographically diverse, from a small town on the Mexican border to an urban barrio. But the students had much in common--poverty, limited English skills, and underachievement.

All five schools appeared to be trying hard to make bilingual education work, but their students’ test scores were among the lowest in California. The 3rd graders in one school were at the 2nd percentile in English reading; in another, at the 6th percentile. And with the schools’ increase in LEP enrollments averaging 46 percent over the previous four years, their situations were rapidly getting worse.

Today, after five years of instruction in the “case studies’’ curriculum, students in most of the five schools are scoring above district norms in English reading, writing, and mathematics.

News of this dramatic progress--especially at the Eastman Avenue School in East Los Angeles, the Rockwood School in Calexico, and the Furgeson School in Hawaiian Gardens--has prompted other districts to adopt the model. About 25,000 California students are now enrolled in the case-studies curriculum, according to Norman C. Gold of the California bilingual-education office, and its influence is spreading to a much wider circle of educators.

And so, many admirers of the case-studies approach were surprised last year when the project was canceled. The U.S. Education Department decided to terminate the project’s Title VII grant two years ahead of schedule, and the State of California has declined to fill the funding gap. The curriculum remains in place at the project schools, but the support services and program evaluations paid for by the grant have been terminated.

Apparently, observers say, what made the case-studies project successful also made it controversial.

Thinking in First Language

Central to the case-studies approach is intensive primary-language development. LEP children are taught not only to read, but to think in their native language--a process that generally takes four to five years--before they make the leap to mainstream classrooms.

From kindergarten to about the 4th grade, students also receive instruction in English as a second language, and teachers use “sheltered English’’ techniques to teach them other subjects. And yet, there is no hurry to speed students’ transition to English; in fact, instructors are trained to resist societal pressures to do so.

Such an approach, like other aspects of the case-studies model, represents a break with traditional practices of bilingual education. It also conflicts with the Reagan Administration’s new policy in grant competitions of favoring programs that move children into mainstream classrooms “as quickly as possible.’'

The case-studies schools developed their curricula on the theory that academic success demands higher-level linguistic skills, which, once developed, transfer readily from the native language to English. “Cognitive-academic language proficiency’'--rather than the “playground English’’ that most children pick up quickly--became the significant goal.

In practice, the higher expectations have paid off, according to educators who have participated in the project.

“People are in such a hurry to get kids into English, thinking they’re doing the right thing,’' says Bonnie Rubio, Eastman’s principal during the project’s first four years. “We were cutting off [native-language instruction] before they developed the thinking process, even the reading-comprehension skills, at about 1st grade.’'

Lacking a solid base in their native language, she says, many students were being shortchanged. It was common to see 6th graders “still on bunny books’’ because they had trouble learning to read in English.

Initially, even Eastman’s bilingual teachers resisted the “late exit’’ approach, Ms. Rubio recalls, but as scores began to rise, “we had converts like you wouldn’t believe.’'

“Most of our 3rd and 4th graders now [make the] transition [into mainstreamclassrooms] just about at grade level,’' says Roque Berlanga, principal of Furgeson Elementary. “Whereas before, when we were moving them across earlier, we found there would be a year to a year and a half deficiency. And that would increase as they [rose] through the grade levels ... being frustrated and probably failing.’'

Starting Point

A “quick exit’’ philosophy was one of several instructional failings that consultants from the state bilingual-education office noticed in their first visits to the five project schools. While teachers were generally supportive of bilingual education, few were familiar with methodologies in initial-literacy instruction or ESL

“Beyond instruction in reading,’' according to a report describing the state consultants’ needs assessment, “Spanish was infrequently used as a medium of instruction with any degree of regularity.’' Bilingual teachers were basically on their own in deciding how and when to use Spanish or English. And because there were generally not enough Spanish-proficient teachers, untrained aides were doing the teaching in some classrooms. Except for basal readers in Spanish, the schools had few materials in other subject areas or for supplementary reading.

“Concurrent translation’’ was the prevalent method of bilingual instruction. Teachers simply repeated each point of a lesson in both languages, an approach that has been widely criticized for wasting instructional time.

Also, many researchers say that students simply tune out the language they do not understand, a finding that has raised considerable doubts about the effectiveness of concurrent translation. (This is perhaps the single point of agreement between the Cummins-Krashen theory of second-language acquisition and the U.S. Education Department’s Baker-de Kanter study.)

The state’s needs assessment also determined that ESL instruction in the five schools was grammar-based, rather than communication-based. Teachers generally provided students no “comprehensible English input’’ and were uncertain when to initiate English reading for LEP pupils.

Clearly, if the project was to test a new instructional approach, teachers and administrators had to apply its methods and curriculum with consistency. To that end, Mr. Gold explains, the bilingual-education office stressed three fundamental points: intensive staff development, careful monitoring of classroom practices, and a long-term outlook.

Teachers had to be instructed in--and sometimes won over to--the “theoretical framework’’ and its pedagogical implications. Their understanding and practice of the new approach had to be evaluated. And administrators had to recognize that “they couldn’t expect changes overnight,’' he adds.

Curriculum Design

In the case-studies curriculum, students are grouped not by grade, but by language proficiency in both English and Spanish. A child’s progress through the program’s “phases’’ reflects performance on the Student Oral Language Observation Matrix, a test of conversational-English competency.

All children study essentially the same lessons; only the language of instruction differs. And for Spanish-speaking children, the medium gradually moves toward English. (See chart at right.)

Phase I, generally lasting two years for LEP students who start in kindergarten, provides Spanish instruction in subjects that are both intellectually challenging and “context-reduced’': language arts, science, health, social studies, and mathematics.

Comprehensible doses of English are provided through ESL instruction, and also through mainstream classes in art, music, and physical education--subjects that make limited cognitive demands, while providing a considerable amount of context for understanding what is said in English.

In Phase II--typically grades 2 and 3--Spanish continues to be the medium of instruction in language arts and social studies, the most cognitively demanding subjects. At the same time, children begin to receive sheltered-English classes in mathematics and science, with instruction tailored to their levels of English proficiency.

In sheltered-English classes, according to the case-studies curriculum design, “teachers change their speech register by slowing down; limiting their vocabulary and sentence length; repeating, emphasizing, and explaining key concepts; and using examples, props, visual clues, and body language to convey and reinforce meaning carried by the language of instruction.’'

ESL continues in Phase II, and for art, music, and physical education, LEP children are again mixed with fluent English-speakers.

In Phase III, generally grades 3 to 4, students receive some instruction in English language arts, and social studies becomes a sheltered-English subject. All other lessons, including mathematics and science, are taught in mainstream classrooms.

By Phase IV, children are no longer limited-English-proficient, and the transition to English-only instruction is completed, except that students continue to receive language-arts (and sometimes social-studies) instruction in Spanish--a “language maintenance’’ feature of the case-studies model that was never eligible for federal funding.

Generally, children who enter the program in kindergarten make the transition to Phase IV around the 4th grade, although late-entering students may make the transition as late as junior high school.

Adapting the Model

The curriculum looked good on paper, educators involved in the project recall, but as the schools prepared to adopt it in the 1982-83 school year, administrative headaches began. For one thing, the project schools differed in size, in their concentrations of LEP students, and in the availability and enthusiasm of trained staff members.

Eastman, with a K-6 enrollment of more than 1,700 and with 12 1st-grade classrooms, had more flexibility in grouping students than did Furgeson, with fewer than 600 students. At the same time, Eastman had fewer certified bilingual teachers--only 21 were available for 48 bilingual classrooms--along with a range of constraints typical of urban school systems, from strict union rules to incessant demands on administrators’ time.

In addition, participants say, teacher resistance had to be overcome. They note that although about two-thirds of the teachers involved expressed support for the concept of bilingual education, many resented being told that the methods they had used for years were inadequate, even counterproductive.

Also, the state consultants were theorists, not practitioners, Ms. Rubio explains, and some of their ideas were cumbersome. Original plans for sheltered-English and mainstream classrooms “would have meant that we’d be juggling children all day long for them to be getting the proper instruction in the right mode,’' she says.

The solution, arrived at after discussions with teachers, was language-grouping. That is, classrooms would be divided on the basis of English proficiency--an arrangement that necessitated a waiver of California law, which requires that English-speakers make up at least one-third of all bilingual classrooms.

The new plan led to civil-rights concerns among some teachers, but “it didn’t make any difference in East L.A.,’' Ms. Rubio says. “We were 99.9 percent Hispanic. There was no one else to integrate with.’' Also, students were mixed with English-speakers for art, music, and physical education.

Organizationally, the arrangement proved to be both cost-effective and educationally effective, says Lilia Stapleton, bilingual coordinator for the ABC Unified School District, where Furgeson is located, and a director of the case-studies project.

“Now the teacher doesn’t have to teach in two languages,’' she says. “It’s cut down on planning time and allows our students to be more on task than before, because there’s no waiting time [during translations].’'

In addition, because they no longer spent time with fluent English-speaking children, bilingual teachers were used more efficiently. At Eastman, Ms. Rubio says, the number of bilingual classrooms was reduced from 48 to 30, and fewer instructional aides were needed.

Teacher Resistance

The case-studies model gave teachers no choice: They had to change their methods, and in doing so, they had to cooperate. Teaming was mandatory--not a popular idea at the outset, Ms. Rubio recalls.

“It meant there was more accountability and the need to stay on a tight schedule,’' she says. "[Previously] some teachers did reading for two hours, spelling during math time, health if they thought of it. Some did science, and some didn’t do science because they didn’t like it.’'

Under the new approach, a team typically made up of two bilingual teachers and one monolingual English-speaking teacher consulted on the needs of each student, assigned children to various classes, and followed their progress. The collegial approach, along with growing indications of student progress, had a salutary effect on staff morale, according to administrators.

At first, says Simon Lopez, principal of the Rockwood Elementary School in Calexico, his staff was polarized into “different camps,’' with bilingual teachers on one side and English-only teachers on the other. “Everybody was doing their own thing’’ in the classroom, he says, and teachers were preoccupied with their own problems.

But as they began sharing responsibility for instruction, Mr. Lopez recalls, “attitudes changed,’' and the staff began to “focus on the child.’' A major benefit of the case-studies project, he adds, has been in “giving us a real mission, a vision of what it is we’re trying to do.’'

Ms. Stapleton says: “It’s really brought the staffs together. And by exposing the monolingual teachers to ESL techniques, [the team approach has helped them to] understand what the children are going through in the process of acquiring English. And they have a little bit more empathy for these kids.’'

Introducing the case-studies curriculum meant revolutionizing the entire school program, a process that is never painless, Ms. Rubio explains. “It changes [administrators’] whole lives: ‘We want you to redo your school totally; reschedule all your schedules; change the way you assign children in classrooms; affect all the training for your school staff, the teachers, the aides; change the way you relate to parents.’''

Aggressive leadership by the principal is the key to making the case-studies model work, she argues. In an early stage at Eastman, Ms. Rubio bluntly told resisters either to teach the curriculum--whether they agreed with it or not--or to transfer out.

“It takes the flak of change until you can get to the benefits of change,’' she says. “If you’re willing to take the flak, believe me, it’ll be worth it in the end.’'

‘Balanced’ Learning

Strong organization, supporters of the case-studies approach say, is essential to ensuring that a “balanced curriculum’’ is taught, one that focuses not just on language, but on all-around cognitive development as well.

For the program to succeed, they stress, teachers must work in cooperative teams and keep on schedule, rather than going at their own pace or favoring one subject over another.

John Myers, who initiated a similar instructional model as principal of Bell Gardens Elementary School near Los Angeles, argues that the mark of a poor-quality bilingual program is an inordinate concentration on language teaching at the expense of other academic areas.

“Because the kids can’t read English,’' he says, “they give them more reading in English, along with language arts, spelling, and some math. But the thinking areas of science and social studies and health--these subjects where you’re picking up the major ideas you’re going to deal with in life--aren’t being taught. And so the minority children are set over to one side, most of them being poor and already having a disadvantage, and they’re not getting an equal opportunity.’'

With the case-studies approach, Ms. Rubio adds, “One of the things that’s exciting is, you can walk into a classroom and the 2nd graders are doing science experiments and talking, talking--they’re doing committee work. These are the same kids that in another [program] would be just sitting there wondering what was going on, or in a corner with a translator.’'

“To me, that made it all worthwhile,’' she says. “There’s nothing wrong with them. Because they can’t speak the English language doesn’t mean they can’t learn. And for them to be doing the same type of things the other kids are doing--you can imagine how that affects their self-image. We found that it eliminated a lot of the stigma, when they saw the teacher was using their [native] language.’'

Student Outcomes

The case-studies approach set these goals for students:

  • After three years, 100 percent of the students would achieve basic oral-communication skills in English.
  • After seven years, at least 50 percent would score at or above the 50th percentile in reading, language arts, and mathematics.

At schools where the average reading scores for 6th graders in 1981 ranged from the 1st to the 12th percentile, these were high expectations.

By the end of the fifth year, 1985-86, when funding for the case-studies project was terminated, only one of the goals had been reached, on average, at the five participating schools: At least 60 percent of students in grades 2-6 who had entered the program in kindergarten were scoring at or above California norms in mathematics.

In 1984-85, the most recent year for which overall figures are available, 52 percent of 2nd graders had achieved oral English proficiency; 72 percent of 3rd graders; and 91 percent of 4th graders. In English reading, 39 percent of 3rd graders and 30 percent of 6th graders had reached state norms.

Despite the project’s failure to reach most of the original goals, evaluators reported that they were encouraged by a steady upward trend in every category of achievement. And in a theoretically significant finding, they documented strong correlations between Spanish reading proficiency and scores in English reading two years later--findings that supported the hypothesis that native-language literacy transfers to English.

Also, Mr. Gold says, the “schools where the curriculum was fully implemented’’ achieved the best results. Administrative problems at two of the five sites--the Mission Education Center in San Francisco and the Huron Elementary School in the Coalinga-Huron Joint Unified School District--kept the model from being thoroughly tested there, he says. Students progressed more rapidly and consistently at the other three schools.

Rockwood Elementary--where about 95 percent of new students speak only Spanish, including some who slip across the border from Mexico each day--was Calexico’s lowest-achieving school in 1981-82. By 1983-84, it was the district’s highest-scoring school, based on California Assessment Program results. Under the case-studies project, there was a steady, upward pattern of achievement; at other schools in the district, scores fluctuated sharply.

In 1981-82, Rockwood’s 3rd graders were at the 6th percentile in reading; by the time those students reached 6th grade, they had reached the 38th percentile. In language, they progressed from the 7th to the 44th percentile; in mathematics, from the 19th to the 64th.

For other grades, the pattern has been the same. In 1985-86, 6th graders scored at the 32nd percentile in reading, the 46th in language, and the 59th in mathematics.

Eastman posted similar progress. Between 1982-83 and 1984-85, scores on state achievement tests climbed from well below the average for Los Angeles to generally above average in reading, writing, and mathematics. After three years, the children were scoring 15 to 20 percentile points higher than their counterparts in East Los Angeles and other inner-city schools, although they remained below state norms.

A final report on the case-studies project, scheduled for completion this spring, will provide a more detailed progress report, using a computer analysis to chart individual students’ performance. Richard Piper, the program’s evaluator, calls this process “peeling the onion,’' because it removes extraneous data--for example, the scores of students who transferred in or out of the program--and concentrates on children who received the full instructional treatment.

Mr. Gold predicts this analysis will provide even stronger evidence for the effectiveness of the case-studies model.

Leadership vs. Flexibility

For the California education department, the case-studies project marked a departure from a more “top down’’ approach, says Mr. Tempes. “We [used to] say, ‘Here’s what’s best for all kids, no matter what the concentrations or what languages they speak, because the state law tells us so. And here’s what thou shalt do to make it happen.’''

U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and others who question the effectiveness of bilingual education have criticized the idea of a government-prescribed method, arguing that school districts need the flexibility to experiment with different approaches.

But Dennis Parker of the California bilingual-education office says that when such a policy was tried in the past, “the record was absolutely dismal.’' One district official, he says, recently summed up a growing attitude among California school administrators: “We don’t need flexibility. We need leadership. We don’t know what to do with these kids. We need some guidance.’'

Mr. Parker concludes: “Don’t tell people, ‘Do whatever you think is right, and we’ll reward you if you come up with some good programs.’ But rather, ‘Here are some things we think you should try.’''

Mr. Tempes adds: “We worked with [the Eastman] school for five years. People may say that’s a poor use of resources. You’ve got these state consultants who spend 50 percent of their time with one elementary school when you’ve got 7,000 elementary schools’’ in California.

“What happened was, they were doing an excellent job and--we didn’t even promote this--people started calling and asking, ‘Can we come over and take a look?’ Lots of [districts] are on the lookout for innovation. They hear about something, and they want to see what it is; they want to evaluate it and use it if they can. That seems to work better than state laws mandating excellence. The excellence really is out there.’'

By 1985, following enthusiastic stories in Los Angeles newspapers, Eastman began to give tours of its program and soon was receiving more attention than it could handle. Visiting days had to be limited to cut down on disruptions.

Meanwhile, other California educators decided to try the case-studies model. The Ontario-Montclair School District adopted it for all its elementary schools. Los Angeles County began planning a replication project encompassing several school districts and expanding the curriculum to include a Portuguese bilingual program. Last year, the Los Angeles school board appropriated $250,000 for the curriculum (an amount later increased) and hired Ms. Rubio to replicate the model at seven schools serving a total of 10,000 students.

Problems with OBEMLA

And yet, the case-studies approach, with its slow pace of transition to English and its Spanish-maintenance component, ran directly counter to the bilingual-education initiative launched in September 1985 by Secretary Bennett. Relations began to sour between practitioners of the case-studies model and the federal office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, observers say.

In the summer of 1986, there was a dispute over the use of federal funds to send case-studies teachers to an institute in Mexico. The three-week program of Spanish-language instruction and pedagogical training was co-sponsored and subsidized by the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, the Mexican counterpart of the U.S. Education Department.

According to Mr. Tempes, teachers and administrators had praised the staff-development program as highly effective in the past two years, and OBEMLA had previously approved its cost. Ultimately, the travel expenditures were authorized after Mr. Tempes sought help from allies on Capitol Hill.

But in October, the project was turned down for continued federal support, one of about 6 percent of Title VII “continuation grants’’ to be canceled after the third year. According to a letter from Carol Pendas Whitten, director of OBEMLA, funding was terminated because “your project has not made substantial and measurable progress in achieving the specific educational goals contained in the approved application.’'

The California education department had insufficient resources to continue the project, Mr. Gold says.

OBEMLA also denied first-year funding for Ms. Rubio’s replication project in Los Angeles, although it did approve a grant for the Los Angeles County project, directed by Ms. Stapleton at ABC Unified.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as Project Aims To Bridge Gap Between Research, Classroom