On (En) a warm spring morning in east El Paso, I watched a science teacher named Yvette Garcia wrap duct tape around the wrists of one of her best students. We were in a tidy lab room on the first floor of Del Valle High School, in the Ysleta Independent School District, about two miles from the border in a valley once covered with cotton and onion fields but long since swallowed up by the sprawl of El Paso. Garcia taped a second student around the ankles, bound a third around the elbows, and so on, until she had temporarily handicapped a half-dozen giggling teenagers, whom she then cheerfully goaded into a footrace followed by a peanut-eating contest. It was a demonstration of the scientific concept of genetic mutation—or at least I think it was. The lab was taught entirely in Spanish, and my limited skills didn’t allow me to follow a discussion of an advanced academic concept. But these kids could grasp the lesson equally well in Spanish or in English, because they had been taught—most of them since elementary school—using a cutting-edge bilingual education program known as dual language.
In traditional bilingual classes, learning English is the top priority. The ultimate aim is to move kids out of non-English-speaking classrooms as quickly as possible. Students in dual language classes, on the other hand, are encouraged to keep their first language as they learn a second. And Ysleta’s program, called two-way dual language, is even more radical, because kids who speak only English are also encouraged to enroll. Everyone sits in the same classroom. Spanish-speaking kids are expected to help the English speakers in the early grades, which are taught mostly in Spanish. As more and more English is introduced into the classes, the roles are reversed. Even the teachers admit it can look like chaos to an outsider. “Dual language classes are very loud,” said Steven Vizcaino, who was an early student in the program and who graduated from Del Valle High in June. “Everyone is talking to everyone.”
Teaching advanced Spanish literacy alongside English is a goal that no other form of bilingual education even aspires to, but it is the secret to the success of the dual language model. “In most districts, kids are moved out of bilingual education just as soon as they learn rudimentary English,” said Elena Izquierdo, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas at El Paso. Dual language takes longer, in part because so much time is devoted to Spanish grammar and literacy. But it pays off down the road. “Learning how Spanish works helps them develop the cognitive skills they need to learn English well,” she said. When it all clicks into place, she said, it’s an amazing thing to see. “Switching between English and Spanish is like breathing for us now,” said Vizcaino, who is going to college in the fall at the University of the Southwest.
Ysleta’s success shows what is possible. It does not, unfortunately, show what is typical. Texas’s adventure in bilingual education is nearing the end of its fourth decade, and the enterprise, by and large, is floundering. Students in bilingual programs across the state are scoring well below native speakers on standardized tests, even after they have been in the classes for years, and they are dropping out of school at more than twice the rate. In many districts, kids who need the classes exit the program too early—or are never enrolled at all—in part because many Texas school administrators either don’t believe in bilingual education or can’t find enough certified teachers to fully staff their classes. But bilingual education is also failing because the Texas Education Agency has scaled back its commitment to the program, and the districts are following suit.
What makes this so dangerous is that bilingual education has never been more critical to the future of this state. Roughly 16 percent of all students in Texas public schools are not fluent in English, a figure that has more than doubled since 1991 and one that most experts consider to be a conservative estimate. Only California has more English learners in its schools. Most of these kids were born in the United States to Spanish-speaking parents and have grown up using Spanish at home. The situation is most acute in the largest school districts, such as Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin, each of which is now a majority Hispanic district. In Dallas, one in three public school students is not fluent in English. Research shows that if these kids do not become proficient in English by the ninth grade, the likelihood that they will drop out of school increases dramatically. This is a big part of what is driving the alarming Hispanic dropout rate in Texas, where just seven in ten Hispanic kids finish high school. (This number is according to the TEA; other studies have put the figure much lower and called into question the TEA’s methodology.)
The consequences of this trend are sobering. In 2003 former Texas state demographer Steve Murdock caused a stir with a book called The New Texas Challenge. In a plainspoken, matter-of-fact tone, Murdock laid out a statistical analysis of the implications of the achievement gap between Anglos and minorities in a state with a rapidly growing Hispanic population. (Between 2000 and 2007, the Hispanic population in Texas grew at more than three times the rate of the non-Hispanic population, thanks to a combination of immigration and high birth rates. Texas is now 36 percent Hispanic; by 2040, or sooner, according to some experts, the state may be majority Hispanic.) The median income for Hispanic families is 40 percent lower than it is for Anglos, in large part because more Anglos finish high school and attend college. Unless we can close the education and income gap between Anglo and minority Texans, Murdock warned, a generation from now Texas will have a population that “not only will be poorer, less well educated, and