Following the dramatic success of a California proposition this June to end the use of bilingual education, policymakers from around the nation have begun to question the effectiveness and appropriateness of those programs in their own schools. But which state will be the next to take the bold steps taken in California? Many believe it will be Arizona.
Nearly nine out of ten Arizona schools have Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, ranking the state second among the ten states with the largest limited-English populations in the nation. Four out of ten Arizona schools use bilingual education, ranking it third in that group (California ranked first in both of these categories). And while Arizona’s Spanish-speaking population is one of the fastest-growing in the country, most available indicators show Hispanic children falling behind in school.
In recent months, legislators from Massachusetts to Colorado have made headlines by criticizing the widespread practice of teaching children who are English learners in their native language rather than in English, often for five to seven years or longer. Even the U.S. House of Representatives got involved by passing the “English Language Fluency Act” in September, an innovative bill which stressed the rights of parents to choose the type of English instruction they wanted for their children and made it easier for state and local officials to eliminate bilingual education in favor of different, better programs.
Recently Arizona legislators, grassroots activists and state Superintendent for Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan have all moved forward with a number of alternatives, many stressing the importance of teaching English fluency as early as possible in a child’s education. While Arizonans decide which of these alternatives will be the one they choose, some valuable perspectives have begun to emerge. This issue brief examines a number of those perspectives.
Time for a Change?
When California voted to end bilingual education last June, educators, policymakers and concerned parents across the United States were paying attention. Newspaper articles and editorials appeared even in locations with very small language-minority populations, taking note of the progress of bilingual education reform in the Golden State, many asking, “Who will be next?”
In Washington, the House of Representatives passed the “English Language Fluency Act” in September, with the leadership of Representatives Bill Goodling and Frank Riggs. The measure took major steps toward reforming federal bilingual education programs to help states teach English to children and give parents the opportunity to choose the best method of instruction for their children. While the bill did not come to a vote in the Senate, bilingual education will certainly resurface as an issue during the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization in 1999. And in states around the nation activists and policymakers began to pursue ways of ensuring that students in schools as far away as Connecticut and Massachusetts would have the opportunity to learn fluent English as early in life as possible.
But in Arizona talk has led to action and many, including Ron Unz, co-author and leader of the California initiative, believe that the best possibility for near-term progress may well reside there. Leadership for change has emerged on several fronts, as state legislators, local activists and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction have all gotten into the act. But the problems faced by Arizona’s English language learners as a result of years of bilingual education are both large and deeply rooted, and while the remedies currently being considered are diverse, most acknowledge that success will not come quickly.
Challenges for a Growing Hispanic Population
Arizona’s Hispanic population is large and growing, with one recent Census Bureau projection estimating that by 2040 Latinos will outnumber whites. Among U.S. major cities, Phoenix has the fastest-growing number of Spanish-language TV households, according to surveys taken last year.
Nearly nine out of ten Arizona schools have Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, ranking the state second among the ten states with the largest limited-English populations in the nation, and four out of ten use bilingual education, ranking it third in that group. California ranks first in both of these categories.
But a number of important education indicators show Hispanic children lagging behind other students. While dropout rates in Arizona are lower than in the rest of the country, 13% of Hispanic students still exit school early, a rate higher than that for African-American students and nearly twice the rate for white students.
One problem in measuring the progress of Hispanic students is a lack of uniform statistical indicators collected by districts and the state. Collected but as yet unpublished results of Stanford 9 standardized tests taken recently for the first time by students across Arizona show Hispanic students significantly trailing all other minority groups, with the exception of Native Americans.
Perhaps the most notable and controversial statistic with implications for the bilingual education debate is an Arizona Department of Education figure which states that in 1996-97, only 2.7 percent of Arizona’s Limited-English Proficient (LEP) students had learned enough English to graduate into mainstream classrooms. In California, where voters widely rejected bilingual education, that figure was also dismal, about 6%.
Bilingual education is used widely in school districts throughout Arizona, particularly for students whose home language is Spanish. While the methods and approaches vary widely, nearly all rely on segregating English learners in classrooms where they are taught in their native language, rather than in English. Leading bilingual education advocates such as George Mason University Professor Virginia Collier, who this summer addressed a conference in Arizona on the subject, stress that children can learn English more effectively after they have already acquired fluency at speaking and writing in their native language.
But children in bilingual education programs learn English slower, later, and less effectively than other children. 80 percent of Arizona’s English learners speak only Spanish at home, according to the Census Bureau. Native languages can be maintained and spoken at home, making intensive English-instruction in school that much more important. Furthermore, there is much recent scientific evidence which suggests that languages can generally be learned more effectively at a younger age, while bilingual education programs wait until children are older before they begin to focus on teaching English.
State Senator Joe Eddie Lopez, a Democrat, is preparing to sponsor a newly-drafted bill which he says is endorsed by “most of the education establishment.” Lopez favors the bilingual education approach, but in describing how such programs work in Arizona admits, “We cannot be very proud of what’s out there.” His proposed legislation calls for comprehensive and costly reforms to improve how bilingual education is implemented in Arizona schools and emphasize uniformity. Its major elements include provisions to:
Prohibit the State Board of Education from requiring students to pass t
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