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.

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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week