Why Juan Can’t Read

All across Texas, bilingual education programs are failing to teach English to Hispanic children. A promising “dual language” approach delivers much better results.

October 2006By Comments

TWO YEARS AGO, MORE than eight out of ten seventh- and eighth-graders with limited English skills failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test. Ninth- and tenth-graders did even worse. These depressing results occurred despite extensive bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) programs and come at a time when the number of students with limited English skills—some 15.5 percent of the total public school enrollment—has doubled in the past two decades. And yet these students drop out of high school at twice the rate of their counterparts. This is a catastrophe in the making: the noneducation of tomorrow’s Texas workforce.

I would like to be able to report that state education officials are on top of this crisis and studying ways to fix it, but it should come as no surprise that this is not the case. In February the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed a motion contending that the state had failed to live up to agreements it made as a result of a 1981 federal lawsuit that accused Texas of failing to provide Spanish-speaking students equal educational opportunities. In that case, brought before U.S. district judge William Wayne Justice, the state agreed to provide bilingual classes in elementary schools, where academic material would be taught primarily in Spanish, in every school district with at least twenty students in the same grade who had limited English skills. In grades nine through twelve, students who were still identified as having limited English skills were to attend regular classes taught in English and receive special instruction in English as a second language only during a separate class period. Chief among MALDEF’s current complaints is that budget cuts have forced the Texas Education Agency to all but halt on-site monitoring of bilingual programs to determine whether they are effective. Since 2003, MALDEF argues, the TEA hasn’t properly audited those programs, neglecting to determine, for instance, how bilingual ed students (who, after starting with Spanish instruction, are supposed to be increasingly taught in English) are identified as ready to move into classes taught entirely in English. Meanwhile, critics contend that overreliance on Spanish in bilingual programs actually slows the learning of English by Spanish-speaking students. In June the state Republican party adopted a platform plank calling for an end to all bilingual education in public schools.

Why is it that after all these years, Texas schools still have not found an effective way to teach Spanish-speaking students the English language? A major obstacle is a shortage of qualified elementary school bilingual education and ESL teachers, calculated at 2,900 by Texas A&M University researchers in 2002. This shortfall is occurring at the same time that the Spanish-speaking population is exploding. Districts are forced to look for teachers far beyond Texas; Dallas school officials send teams of recruiters to Puerto Rico and Mexico to hire teachers. The lack of teachers has the effect of forcing districts to prematurely push students out of bilingual programs and into English-only classes to make room for newcomers. Critics of bilingual education argue that English-immersion classes—the sooner the better—would be more effective, but the Houston Independent School District recently completed a three-year study whose results suggest the opposite: that bilingual students who are kept in the program until they are ready to graduate into English-only classes actually beat the district’s average for all students on standardized tests and performed much better than students who received ESL instruction.

“The later the better” is also the premise for what I believe is the most promising approach to bilingual education in Texas, an intensive program known as dual language. The idea behind dual language is that non-Spanish-speaking students and non-English-speaking students are put together in the same classroom and taught academic subjects in either all Spanish or all English. The classroom teaching is reinforced by the opportunity for children who speak different languages to rely on one another for help.

Perhaps the best example of a successful dual language program is at Del Valle High School, in the Ysleta Independent School District, in El Paso. Looking for information about dual language online, I came across the YISD’s ambitious vision statement, which boldly claims that all of its students will “graduate from high school fluent in two or more languages, prepared and inspired to continue their education in a four-year college, university, or institution of higher education.” And so, in May, I visited Del Valle on the giddy day the seniors gathered to practice for graduation. The school’s “brag sheet”—listing the college scholarships landed by its graduates—matched up well against those of private schools: a number of students heading for the University of Texas at Austin and others bound for prestigious private colleges like Grinnell, in Iowa. One student had nailed the grand slam of American academic accomplishments: a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University.

This is occurring in a school district that is located on the “wrong” (east) side of El Paso and serves a student population that is 88.1 percent Hispanic and 73.4 percent economically disadvantaged. Dual language has helped liberate its students from the grim statistical reality that half of the Hispanic students in Texas will become dropouts: Ysleta boasts a graduation rate of 84 percent, well above both the Dallas and Houston school districts. A pioneer in dual language, Del Valle in 2005 graduated the first class to begin the program in elementary school. Instead of leaving Spanish behind for all-English classes, students were taught core subjects like algebra and world history in both Spanish and English.

Awaiting me in the library was Cindy Sizemore, the coordinator of the dual language program, and about two dozen seniors, as well as a few recent graduates. They represented a cross section of interests—football to student council—and, Sizemore confided, a range of academic abilities. Most, she said, came from poor families. The sons and daughters of teachers were considered affluent.

Benito Rodriguez, the student heading to Harvard, told me he had no doubt that the dual language program made the difference in his college application. The son of a self-employed businessman who deals in secondhand tools, Benito said he began losing his fluency in Spanish in first grade when he attended a traditional public school classroom. “I could complain about chores at home, but that was about it,” he laughed. After switching to the dual language program in fourth grade, he became fully bilingual in English and Spanish and later studied Japanese. Another student, Rudy Garcia, was about to enter UT classified as a sophomore, thanks to the 21 hours of Spanish credits he earned by taking advanced placement classes.

Some of the kids reported hour-long bus rides to get to Del Valle, a magnet school that is one of four high schools in the YISD offering dual language (several elementary and middle schools do as well). Parents and administrators faced another hurdle: In the early years of dual language, students do not score well on standardized tests. Absorbing two languages takes up brainpower and class time that would ordinarily be spent on other subjects. Many parents, fearful that their children are falling behind, pull their students out of dual language in elementary school.

Hortencia Pina, who oversees the dual language program for the Ysleta district, couldn’t be more sympathetic: One of her own daughters, a dual language student, stumbled on early grade-school achievement tests. “I can really see where the parents are coming from,” she says. “Even if you know the research, you still panic as a parent. You start questioning yourself.” (It wasn’t until the sixth grade that her daughter passed all the portions of the required tests.) In the beginning it is an adjustment, Pina says, but in time dual language students will surpass kids pushed into a regular classroom too early.

Dual language programs have been blooming across the state, with promising results reported by the Houston, Aldine, Bryan, and San Antonio school districts, to name a few; in all, according to the most recent data available, there are 238 such programs around the state. Rafael Lara-Alecio, a Texas A&M professor of educational psychology who maintains a Web site devoted to the dual language movement (texastwoway.org), says teachers and parents—both Anglo and Hispanic—are beginning to demand them.

The fate of bilingual education, including dual language, will ultimately be determined in the political system. When the Legislature meets again, in January, lawmakers will review formulas that determine how much money school districts get for students who come from impoverished or non-English-speaking backgrounds. For proponents of bilingual education, the debate could hardly come at a worse time. The rancorous opposition to illegal immigration was likely sparked, in part, by voter resentment of escalating school district costs attributable to the children of illegal immigrants. Since Texas already provides extra funding for students with limited English skills, Republican politicians may well balk at giving schools more money for a system that is producing poor results.

El Paso’s Democratic state senator, Eliot Shapleigh, wants the dual language immersion pilot program to be expanded into all Texas schools. That’s not going to happen, even if he comes armed with an eighteen-year study by professors Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier, of George Mason University, in Virginia, titled “The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All.” In this political climate, a Republican legislature is not going to mandate that Anglo kids have to enter a bilingual program. Dual language is, and can only be, an elective program that requires parental support, good teachers, and a supply of English-speaking kids, who may not be available in some school districts. At the very least, however, legislators should restore funding to allow the TEA to conduct meaningful oversight of the bilingual programs already in place.

Republican state senator Florence Shapiro, of Plano, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, admits to being “frustrated” by the lack of hard data showing which programs work best in Texas and is “very disappointed” in how little the TEA has contributed. “There is no good solid data we can work off of,” she laments. But she isn’t inclined to throw more money at a program that’s not working, as it would only give schools a financial incentive to keep students “wallowing” in bilingual classes they would no longer need if the program were working. David Hinojosa, a MALDEF staff attorney, has a different perspective. He argues that fiscal conservatives want to push students into classes taught in English so the state will no longer have to pay school districts their bilingual stipend. “We think the state should do what it said it was going to do: truly implement a bilingual program,” Hinojosa says.

Even if anti-immigration sentiment forestalls bilingual education reform in 2007, it cannot change the reality of Texas’s future. The projections of state demographer Steve Murdock, which are widely known around the Capitol, show that the Texas population will be majority Hispanic in twenty to thirty years. If bilingual education continues to fail and Hispanics continue to drop out of school at a rate of 50 percent, what then? Which employers will entrust their bottom line to an uneducated workforce? Who will pay taxes? This is a high-stakes issue, and Texas can either get it right—which means dual language—or get it disastrously wrong.

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