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(continued)

Wednesday, May 27 1998
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In fact, it hasn’t fared well — at least not as far as one can determine given the lack of comprehensive data.

Critics like to point out that only about 6.5 percent of California’s limited-English students were redesignated as fluent in English last year. In L.A. Unified, the number is 8 percent. That’s bad enough, but not quite as bad as it sounds when you consider that the "textbook" bilingual program is meant to be five to seven years long. To redesignate all limited-English speakers as fluent in five to seven years, you’d only need an annual rate of about 16.7 percent. So, the state is doing a bit less than half as well as it should by its own standards. And L.A. Unified’s numbers represent a vast and recent surge over past performance, when the redesignation rate was as low as 3.3 percent.

But at its core, the debate over the pace of English fluency presents a false dilemma. Over time, bilingual programs generally succeed at the goal of producing English speakers. While one could argue that the transition should come earlier — and that students could learn more English faster — no student who spends 12 years in L.A. Unified emerges unable to speak conversational English. The problem is that you’ll find lots of students, in and out of bilingual ed, whose academic achievement, as measured by test scores, is abysmal. Except in selected cases, bilingual education hasn’t resulted in literate, well-educated students, and, remember, academic achievement rather than learning English quickly has been the real goal of the state’s bilingual-education program all along. Moreover, the Latino dropout rate is still at least 30 percent.

There are some legitimate explanations: student poverty, parents’ lack of literacy and a shortage of bilingual teachers, not to mention student transiency. And per-pupil spending in California lags behind most of the nation. But that is not the whole story.

Former state Superintendent Honig noted that for years there were no serious discussions at the state level on tracking the progress of students — bilingual or otherwise — in order to hold local school districts accountable, a failing that hampered the entire public school system. In its good-faith attempt to provide extra funding to help bilingual students, the state even created a penalty for success. As soon as a student became fluent, a school district would lose supplemental funding, about $224 per student in LAUSD last year. Honig also made the case that effective bilingual education was undermined by the same teaching strategies that he and other critics blame for plunging reading scores in English-only classes: the once-popular "whole language" methods.

Whole language, as it came to be widely practiced, relied on an almost magical acquisition of reading skills, the idea being that if children were surrounded with rich literature, they would eventually absorb intuitively the skills necessary to read. In the whole-language make-over of classrooms, old-fashioned, often tedious "See Jane run" readers got tossed on the dust heap. In many instances, administrators even banned the use of phonics, the process of decoding words by learning the sounds made by letters.ä

In theory, whole language was not all bad. In practice, its rapid introduction left many teachers with neither materials nor techniques to teach children how to read. Not only did whole language supplant phonics in the 1980s, but it also left its mark on bilingual-ed theory and curriculum, at least in California, thanks to the influence of charismatic academics such as Stephen Krashen, whose oar stirred both intellectual currents.

Across the state, the pendulum has now shifted vigorously away from whole language, except perhaps in bilingual-education departments. One section of L.A. Unified’s current blueprint for bilingual-ed programs reads like a testimonial to whole-language methods.

But the issue is not purely a pedagogical one. In California, the vast majority of English-learners are Latino. Many vividly recall the not-too-distant bad old days before bilingual education, when children were punished or derided for speaking Spanish. Many, therefore, consider bilingual ed, and the cultural affirmation embodied in the program, a much-needed salve for discriminatory practices.

"Bilingual education has done more for the self-esteem of kids in this community than anything else," said Soberanes, the bilingual coordinator at Eastman. And both research and common sense support the notion that children learn more effectively in culturally supportive environments.

In the domain of cultural affirmation, educators have largely succeeded, by celebrating students’ diverse backgrounds and elevating Spanish and those who speak it from a second-tier status. But in the absence of a focus on student achievement, the emphasis on students’ self-image ("self-confidence" is one of the three main goals of L.A. Unified’s bilingual plan) has not translated into concrete results. Critics charge that bilingual programs have become a sort of curricular equivalent of Black History Month, emphasizing culture and self-esteem, and then declaring the battle won.

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