Initiative seeks to ban bilingual classes
After a year or two of English immersion, kids would be mainstreamed
Oregon voters get to decide how to reach and teach children with limited English this fall as the hot-button immigration issue makes it to a statewide ballot.
Initiative promoter Bill Sizemore proposes scrapping bilingual education and English as a Second Language classes – now taught to one in 10 Portland Public Schools students. His Measure 58 would usher newcomers into English immersion classes for one to two years, then put them in regular classrooms alongside other students.
Measure 58 would push 3,500 Portland students out of ESL and bilingual programs and cost the school district $10.6 million a year in special state funding, said district spokesman Matt Shelby.
The campaign also should spark a heated debate about illegal immigration, boosting voter turnout by social conservatives in what is expected to be a close presidential election.
“Oregon schools have no obligation to people who immigrate into this country to perpetuate their culture,” said Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, who hopes to play a lead role in the campaign.
Sizemore said ESL and bilingual education are “grossly failing kids,” and that English immersion is the best way to help immigrants succeed.
Many educators and Hispanic leaders counter that Measure 58 would turn back the clock on educational progress for immigrants, substituting a “sink or swim” approach for research-backed teaching methods.
“It smacks of institutionalizing discrimination by failing to provide the best services that you can to the students,” said Portland School Board member Martín González, recently appointed to the board to complete the term of a member who resigned.
Portland Public Schools students designated as English-language learners, 2007-08
Total: 4,482, 10.7 percent of the Portland district’s roughly 42,000 students in its traditional program
Elementary schools: 3,314, or 13.6 percent of all elementary students
Middle schools: 338, or 6 percent of all middle school students
High schools: 830 students, or 7.1 percent of all high school students
González said the measure harkens back to his youth in Texas, where he was paddled for using Spanish in class when he asked fellow students about the teachers’ instructions.
“You’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody from my community that would say, ‘I don’t want my kid to learn English,’ ” González said. But it’s counterproductive to force immigrants to speak only in English, he said, when schools are stressing the need to master multiple languages.
Measure 58 offers no definition of English immersion, so its ultimate impact could rest with the Legislature or the courts.
New English-language learners would get a maximum one year of English immersion if they start school in Oregon in kindergarten through fourth grade, 1.5 years if they start in fifth through eighth grades and two years if they start in high school.
There’s no provision allowing parents to keep children in bilingual or ESL classes, as offered when Californians approved the nation’s first English-immersion mandate in 1998.
“It just pretty much dismantles what we have” and imposes a vague “one-size-fits-all” approach, said Gary Hargett, a Portland consultant who helps school districts plan and evaluate ESL and bilingual programs.
Educational approaches vary from school to school and district to district. The predominant method used in Portland and other school districts is ESL, where students are taught mostly in English in self-contained classrooms, sometimes being pulled out of regular classrooms for about an hour a day. There may be some assistance in students’ native tongue if the teacher or aides are bilingual.
Some elementary schools teach reading in students’ native tongues in kindergarten through first, second or third grades. Research shows that it’s often easier to learn reading in one’s native language and then transfer the skills to English.
“Every single published study that looks at the big picture finds a consistent advantage in starting students in their primary language and then adding English,” Hargett said.
Bilingual education advocates say teaching students at least partly in their native language keeps them from falling behind in other subjects while mastering English. Students find it easier to absorb grammar, math formulas and other concepts when explanations are in their native tongue.
Atkinson program popular
Some Portland schools, such as Atkinson Elementary School in Southeast Portland, offer dual-language immersion. English- and Spanish-speaking children learn each others’ language side by side. Classroom instruction gradually shifts from mostly Spanish to mostly English over six years.
“For the Hispanic families, it’s really important that they can help their kids with homework,” said Karina Potestio, a native Guatemalan who has three children in Atkinson’s program. “I have a fourth-grader who is reading in English and Spanish.”
Manuela Lazaro, a Mexican native, said the Atkinson program helps her son, Oscar, appreciate Mexican and American cultures, and learn English without forgetting his Spanish.
There are fierce debates about what programs work best for immigrant children.
Rob Stewart, Atkinson curriculum coordinator, isn’t a fan of ESL classes, because they often push students away from their native language.
Hispanics in Atkinson’s dual-language program are thriving, Stewart said, with an average of only one fifth-grader a year
failing the state’s fifth-grade reading test.
But many school districts have trouble recruiting qualified bilingual teachers.
Academics and educators differ on the optimal way to structure ESL or bilingual programs, but most concur that kids fall
behind in other classes when put into English immersion.
Immersion success unproven
“Taking a child who has problems with English and dumping them into a classroom with a teacher who is not well-trained for kids with limited English is a horrendous thing to do to them,” said Dave Wilson, director of development and communications at Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in Portland.
“There is no research that I know of that says that works best,” said Cynthia Cosgrave, who teaches ESL and bilingual education theory and practice at Lewis & Clark College’s graduate education program. “You can’t do this in one to two years.”
Research shows it takes upward of five or more years for new speakers to master English enough to fully grasp subject matter in school.
Ludwick argues that 200 years of American history has shown immigrants can do fine being immersed in the language of their new country.
“How come Vietnamese can do it? How come Russians can do it?” Ludwick asked.
Measure 58 supporters often tout the results in California, where a voter initiative permits students to be in a sheltered English immersion program no more than one year.
The American Institutes for Research found that after five years, there was no conclusive evidence that the new English immersion model produced better results among California students, or that it made things worse.
Measure 58 supporters also point to lagging dropout rates and test scores among Hispanics as proof that ESL and bilingual programs aren’t working.
Cosgrave said there’s room for improving ESL and bilingual programs, but Measure 58 will make things worse.
Districts not forced to spend bilingual funds on immigrant kids
In Bill Sizemore’s view, Oregon school districts see dollar signs when a new immigrant student walks through the school doors.
The conservative ballot-measure promoter argues that schools let students languish in bilingual or English as a Second Language classes because of the extra funding the students bring while enrolled in those programs.
“They give them $2,650 additional funding (per student) per year, with no strings attached,” Sizemore said. “They can pay for football uniforms. They can do whatever they want with the money.”
Critics often accuse Sizemore of making inflammatory statements about government and public employees. But this charge could be a potent one as he seeks to ban bilingual and ESL classes in Oregon, as part of his Measure 58 initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Even those who usually oppose Sizemore agree with part of his criticisms – the state policy of granting school districts an extra 50 percent funding for each student designated an “English language learner,” while failing to require the money be spent on those students.
“Where is the accountability in that?” wonders Martín Gonzáles, newly appointed Portland School Board member.
Yet Gonzáles and others say Sizemore’s charge is outdated, at best, because of changes in federal law and state policies.
“That is a bogus argument because all of the school districts are against the wall with the No Child Left Behind Act,” said Eduardo Angulo, a Salem education activist. “If they don’t help ESL kids, they will be (classified as) failing schools,” he said.
Angulo has pushed for more ESL-bilingual funding for a decade, arguing that schools should deploy their bonus funding on the immigrant students. Angulo said he’s finally seen progress in the last few years, and credited state schools Superintendent Susan Castillo.
Pat Burk, Castillo’s chief policy officer, agreed the state’s funding system could tempt districts to leave students too long in ESL-bilingual programs. “Without a system of accountability in place, there’s a danger of that,” said Burk, a former Portland Public Schools deputy school superintendent.
To fix that, the past school year the state began requiring all school districts to use a standard test, the English Language Proficiency Assessment, to determine when students are ready to leave bilingual or ESL programs. Once students reach a score of four, they must be fully integrated into regular classrooms, with some exceptions.
State Department of Education staff members also are monitoring school districts to assure they aren’t letting students stay too long in ESL-bilingual programs, Burk said.
Several years ago, attorney Kelly Clark was retained by Miguel Salinas, a retired bilingual program administrator, to mount a class-action lawsuit against 17 Oregon school districts, arguing that English-language learners civil rights were being denied.
“The school districts were accepting the money and weren’t providing adequate ESL instruction,” Clark said.
Immigrant parents often have little interest in rocking the boat, he said.
But Clark’s suit never was filed, and the state and federal governments have since stepped-up testing and other accountability measures.
– Steve Law