English Spoken Here
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
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.' "