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The Spanish road to English

Should teachers immerse California’s rainbow of students in English to close achievement gaps — a linguistic cold shower of sorts — or lift literacy by scaffolding up from their home languages?

It’s a false dichotomy, says Ashley Aguilar, a savvy junior at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. She must ace several English tests to enter UC Santa Barbara, her dream college. But she holds her native Spanish dear as well. “It will be better that I am bilingual,” Aguilar said. Her language skills will open doors to jobs. Her mother works in the diverse city of Bell, where being bilingual “is a super big plus.”

The problem is that parents with few resources — especially those in neighborhoods where only Spanish is heard — send their children to schools that are failing to boost English proficiency. After six years of schooling, less than two-fifths of Spanish-speaking pupils become literate in English statewide, according to a study released in May.

At El Monte High School, four-fifths of English learners still cannot speak and write in English proficiently after six years in the system. The Los Angeles Unified School District serves a fifth of California’s 1.6 million students classified as English learners, mostly Spanish speakers.

Proposition 227 — the English-only initiative approved by voters in 1998 — aimed to fix this problem. It requires schools to teach students primarily in English, unless parents prefer Spanish-dominant classrooms. Only 8% opt out of English-only.

But the polarizing debate about bilingual versus English immersion focuses on the wrong problem. It distracts policymakers from investing in new teachers with rich pedagogical skills and deep cultural knowledge.

English learners in Los Angeles have made discernible progress. Reading scores among Latino fourth-graders have climbed by two-thirds of a grade level since 2002, according to federal assessments. Still, just 13% are proficient in written English, and scores for eighth-graders remained flat over the same period.

Outside the political clamor, researchers are illuminating what works inside schools and what doesn’t to narrow language disparities. People on both sides of the bilingual debate might be surprised at what the studies show.

Teacher quality matters most. Whether children are taught at first in English-only or Spanish-dominant classrooms doesn’t much matter. The latter model — with teachers building from home language to steadily move students toward English — shows slightly better results, according to a recent review of 18 experiments in which pupils were randomly assigned to either type of classroom. But that was true only in carefully engineered bilingual programs with top-notch teachers, and even then the advantage was small. A second study, tracking L.A. pupils, yielded similar results.

What matters most are invigorating teachers who engage students, advance rich oral language in both languages and team up with parents to motivate their children. Mexican American high schoolers, like others, respond to teachers who set high expectations and employ motivating classroom activities that engage the students’ own ideas and language skills, according to Robert Ream at UC Riverside.

Denying what children know is costly. A generation of work by Harvard University’s Catherine Snow shows that skilled teachers who advance rich oral language in Spanish among young children, accenting awareness of sounds and grammatical patterns, are most effective at advancing English proficiency.

But even as Latino enrollments grow, the state’s teacher preparation programs are turning out fewer candidates with bilingual skills and cross-cultural awareness. The number of new teachers earning bilingual credentials has fallen during the last decade from 1,829 to 1,147 per year, according to the California Teacher Commission.

Build from strong families. Some educators blame poverty for their failure to boost English proficiency. Their argument is that parents either don’t care or lack home resources to lift children’s achievement. But recent findings from UC Berkeley reveal that Latino children, whether poor or not, enter kindergarten with levels of enthusiasm and social agility that rival their white peers.

We know that high-quality preschools can narrow gaps in oral language and pre-literacy skills before children start school, including efforts financed by First 5 L.A. In middle school, immigrant youths who remain tight with their families are more strongly engaged in the classroom, as detailed by UCLA psychologist Andrew Fuligni.

Small, innovative schools may help. Local leaders, like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Yolie Flores, vice president of the L.A. Unified school board, now bank on charters and small schools to lift Latino literacy. Inventive teachers will open five human-scale high schools on the new Esteban Torres campus this fall, liberated from bureaucratic and union rules. There is some evidence that these smaller schools engage students more and better track their progress.

Still, evidence remains mixed on whether charter or Torres-like pilot schools can outperform garden-variety public schools. And charters continue to enroll a smaller percentage of English learners than the district average. All schools are reeling from severe budget cuts in Sacramento, losing more than one-sixth of their operating funds over the last three years.

Language isolation is the real culprit. Progress in the schools is just one piece of the puzzle. The biggest driver of language disparities is the isolation of so many Southland children in Spanish-speaking enclaves. Even Garfield’s Ashley Aguilar admits with a nervous giggle, “I speak Spanglish to my friends,” the linguistic currency that offers teenagers an identity, a feeling of solidarity.

Vibrant bilingual communities thrive in parts of Los Angeles. But building neighborhoods of many tongues requires affordable housing and schools that attract middle-class parents.

Back at Garfield High, Ashley emphasized how her favorite teachers, both Latinas, “make you feel like you are part of a family,” quickly adding, “but they put academics first.” Yes, we need artful teachers who hammer on English literacy. But more deeply, we must advance civic spaces that nurture this sense of belonging, from inventive schools to bilingual town squares. Otherwise, we can keep talking past one another.

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of “Standardized Childhood.”


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