English Spoken Here

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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.

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