English Spoken Here

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Teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman says bilingual education has failed thousands of California's children.

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

In large part because of Tuchman's efforts, students at Taft who are not proficient in English are immersed in the language from the time they enter kindergarten. The method, used with about half the school's 1,080 students, is called "sheltered English immersion." It's a radical departure from the bilingual approach required--with some exceptions--by the state of California.

Tuchman wants to make her way the statewide way to teach English to non-native speakers. She has joined forces with a Silicon Valley millionaire in a nationally watched campaign to virtually ban bilingual education in California schools. Their proposed initiative promises to be as hotly debated as the ballot measures approved by state voters in recent years that targeted affirmative action and services for illegal immigrants.

In bilingual classes, students are taught core subjects in their primary language as they simultaneously learn to read and write in English. Ideally, students are fluent by 4th grade and can successfully move to English-only classes. But Tuchman says she is convinced that children are like sponges and that they can learn 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 that 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 remembers telling the principal, "and our test scores reflect that we're doing well."

The principal, she says, "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 the three other teachers 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 news media, and an anti-bilingual-education activist was born.

Twelve years later, the principal is long gone and Taft Elementary is celebrated for its English-immersion program. Tuchman has dabbled in politics, become one of the most outspoken opponents of bilingual education in California, and has signed on as the co-chairwoman of the effort to make English immersion the law.

Gloria Matta Tuchman, Texas-born and of Mexican descent, is now known to some as "the poster teacher for the English-first movement in California." Others have called her a whole lot worse.

"Bilingual education deserves an F for failure to teach English," Tuchman contends, 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--half of them in Los Angeles County--are considered not proficient in English.

Critics of bilingual education cite statistics showing that, in California, only about 6 percent of limited-English-proficient students each year become fluent in English. 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.

"Bilingual education deserves an F for failure to teach English."

Gloria Matta Tuchman

Supporters of the approach are quick to point out that fewer than half of California's Latino students are designated LEP and that not all such 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 has become an easy target, however, 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 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.

Ron Unz, a 36-year-old millionaire who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 1994, 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. The English for the Children measure would require that all students in public schools be taught primarily in English unless their parents requested otherwise. Sheltered English immersion would become the law of the land in California. Teachers, administrators, or school board members who refused to offer students English-language instruction could be sued for damages.

Unz has raised about $500,000 for the English-immersion campaign--including more than $200,000 of his own money. The California Republican Party endorsed the initiative at its convention last September, but state GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder is lukewarm. "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."

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. The 55-year-old teacher was hesitant to sign on. She had spent years trying to persuade state legislators to do something about bilingual education, to no avail. She says 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 the co-chairwoman of the campaign. More recently, nationally known math teacher Jaime Escalante signed up as honorary chairman.

In November, Unz and Tuchman held a news conference in Los Angeles to announce that they had collected more than 700,000 signatures in support of the initiative. And late last month, Bill Jones, the California secretary of state, announced that at least 510,000 of those signatures were from registered voters; 433,269 were needed to get the measure on the ballot in June.

Unz is confident that the initiative will be voted into law. "I think the odds are very high that we'll win," he says.

If the early opinion polls are any indication, Unz may be right. According to an October Los Angeles Times survey, 80 percent of California voters supported the initiative. Among Latino voters, 84 percent said they favored the measure. Supporters have used the poll to bolster their argument that bilingual education has very little support, even among people it was meant to serve.

A Field Poll released last month showed lesser, but still big, majorities supporting the proposal. The poll found that 69 percent of California voters, including 66 percent of Latinos, said they would vote for the measure.

Tuchman believes California voters will see the wisdom of the English for the Children initiative.

But the campaign is just getting started. Opponents have pointed out that Proposition 187--the 1994 initiative that aimed to stop a free education and most other public benefits for illegal immigrants--initially was supported by a majority of Latino voters, but by Election Day, 77 percent opposed it. The measure passed, but it is now tied up in court. (Unz was a vocal opponent of 187, although he supported Proposition 209, the initiative approved in 1996 that bars race or gender from being a factor in state hiring or school admission.)

Tuchman believes California voters will see the wisdom of the English for the Children initiative.

"It's gonna go," she says. "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 [bilingual education] program. I mean, something has to give after all these years."

Taft Elementary School is in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of one- and two-story 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.

About 65 percent of Taft's students are Latino, 17 percent are white, 12 percent are of Asian origin or descent, 4 percent are African-American, and 2 percent are Filipino or Pacific Islander. "There are 16 different languages spoken here," Principal William 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 English. 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 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. She pauses sometimes to emphasize certain sounds. "'Witch' starts with what letter?" she asks. "W," several children answer in unison.

"The primary goal of bilingual education is to teach English. And that's exactly what the program is lacking. In this state, it's a Spanish-maintenance program."

Gloria Matta Tuchman

Most of the students are comfortable talking in English. But one girl seems confused. Later, Tuchman explains that the girl just moved here from Mexico and that 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," Tuchman 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 about 15 minutes, 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 short words such as man, pals, mat, taps, and hat, among others. 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 classroom. Tuchman leads them out of the building, where a group of parents is waiting.

Back in her empty classroom, Tuchman 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. She's a good teacher--her principal calls her "outstanding"--but she's very much a politician. Tuchman speaks in polished sound bites and even distributes her own press kit, complete with a 5-by-7, black-and-white photograph of herself and a three-page autobiography.

Tuchman, the oldest of six children, traces her strong views to her parents, Mexican-Americans who spoke Spanish but who insisted that their children 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.'"

Gloria Matta was born in Pecos, Texas, where her father worked as a timekeeper for the railroad. In search of opportunity, the Mattas headed west, first to California, 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 that they couldn't swim at the local pool because they were Mexican-Americans. 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. They settled in Mesa, Ariz., and opened Matta's Restaurant, which is still going strong.

Tuchman graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in elementary education. In 1967, after working several years in Phoenix, she and her husband, Terry Tuchman, also an educator, moved to Santa Ana. 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 served two terms as the board's president. Her primary focus 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. She promised to end the state's bilingual education policies. Tuchman lost the race to Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and a member of the California Assembly. Among 12 candidates, Tuchman placed fifth, garnering 8 percent of the votes.

She didn't drop the bilingual issue, however. She put her energy into a bill, sponsored by state Sen. 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."

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."

Joan Baca,
principal,
George Washington Elementary School

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.

"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 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."

Susan Hale,
1st grade teacher,
George Washington Elementary School

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."

Vol. 17, Issue 18, Page 42-46

Published in Print: January 14, 1998, as English Spoken Here
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