Santa Clara County, CA November 3, 1998 General
Smart Voter

The Pros and Cons of Implementing Proposition 227, The Unz Initiative

By Michael B. "Mike" Smurthwaite

Candidate for Governing Board Member; Gilroy Unified School District; Trustee Area 1

This information is provided by the candidate
The passage of prop 227 has re-focussed attention on English learning. The vagueness of the law is also causeing anxieties to many bilingual teachers and parents.
While in Los Angeles on one occasion, Ron Unz, Palo Alto businessman, saw Hispanic parents picketing a school because the school would NOT permit their students to be placed in an English-speaking classroom. The parents wanted their children to learn English and believed that the bilingual class experience was inhibiting that desire. This experience profoundly affected Mr. Unz and he decided to do something about it.

The Unz Initiative, Prop. 227, mandates school districts to comply with four main actions: (1) All children, including LEP (Limited English Proficient Students, virtually all of whom come from homes where a non-english language is spoken), must be taught English "by being taught in English;" (2)to do so, all children must be placed in English-language classrooms(where the language of instruction is "overwhelmingly in English"); (3) LEP students must be placed in sheltered or structured English-Immersion classrooms where "nearly all" instruction is in English for aproximately one year, and (4) once LEP students acquire a "good working knowledge" of English, they must be transferred into a regular mainstream English classroom (i.e., a classroom of students who are native or reasonably fluent English speakers.)

At first glace, some educators thought Prop 227 would be the death nell of bilingual education, the main curricular program utilized for the past 20 years to instruct LEP students in English. The reverse is true for two reasons: First, the Unz Initiative DOES permit native, primary, or home language instruction for core curricular subjects upon the following conditions: (1) the parents comes in person to the school, (2) receives an explanation in understandable language of a bilingual class option availble at the school, and (3) signs an informed consent waiver to permit their child to be placed in a basic bilingual transitional classroom after 30 days assessment in a "Sheltered English Immersion" classroom. This will be permitted based on the informed belief of the parent and the school personnel that this alternative approach to learning English is better suited to the child's overall educational development.

The second reason bilingual education will continue is due to the fact that when parents of 20 students in any given grade level sign exemption waivers, the school MUST provide a bilingual class for those students or facilitate a transfer to school were the bilingual alternative class is available. Thus bilingual teachers can be assured that they continue to be a vital and necessary part of the educational team effort to teach English Language Learners.

While sympathetic and in agreement with the 227's overall goal to organize curriculum and teach so students more rapidly learn English, many school districts were perplexed by the vagueness of certain 227 provisions and petitioned the State Board of Education for clearer definitions of certain key terms. For example, 227 did not define the terms "overwhelmingly in English" or "good working knowledge of English." Nor did the initiative specify whether "overwhelmingly in English" pertained to any time period. Did the law mean "overwhelmingly in English" each day, each week, each month, or by year's end? Did the law permit the use of teaching materials written in the primary language in the Sheltered English Immersion classroom? (The answer to this last question is "yes," and is defined as "support.")

Also, many teachers were worried, and wondered aloud about 227's personal liability provision. Most kindergarten and lower grade teachers feel impelled to communicate in the child's primary language for much more than 20 or 30 percent of the day in order to teach English, rules of behavior, and other core subjects. "Under what conditions may suit be charged?" they asked.

Fortunately, the assurance has become clearer that teachers or administrators will only be personally liable if they willingly and repeatedly refuse to implement the terms of the statute. This means that a teacher who continues to teach students in their native language without a parental waiver can be held liable under proposition 227. (Fact Sheet on Proposition 227, Ruiz & Sperow, Attorneys at Law; June 11, 1998, p.2.)

Since the law did not specify the definitions of certain vague terms, the State Board of Education attempted the task. But, after weeks of debate, in late July, 1998, the State Board decided to leave the definitions up to the local districts. This decision supported the principle of "local control" of education, but simultaneously ignited a variety of district responses which may yet spawn several law suits.

With the door opened, some districts decided that "overwhelmingly in English" meant teaching in the English language 90 percent of the time, while another declared it meant 51 percent of the time. Yet other district determined that it meant the teacher must speak English for between 70 and 80 percent of the time. Gilroy's School Board defined it to mean utilizing Engligh 60 percent of the time and Spanish 40 percent of the time.

This 60/40 proportion may later become problematic for Gilroy schools since some county counsels and the State Department of Education have since come out and counseled against any particular percentage definition of the term "overwhelming." The State Assistant Superintendent further commented that the State Department would look askance and likely disapprove anything below 70 percent. They instead recommended using a verbal description or definition of the term such as "preponderant proportion" or "solid majority" of the time. {This too, of course, may continue and compound the vagueness.)

In my opinion, I believe schools and our democratic society may yet benefit more from this renewed emphasis on English than they will be hampered or bothered by it. Over all, the statute results in much more power being given to LEP parents when interfacing with schools to determine the most advantageous educational program for their child.

For example, 227 allows any parent by mere request to remove the child from a bilingual program and be placed in a mainstream english classroom at any time during the year. Further, the school personnel must have solid educational reasons for denying any waiver request, as well as provide an appeal system so any parent may appeal any school decision contrary to the parents desire.

My concern about 227 lies in it's imposition of specific, non-research based methodology to teach English, and some of the faulty logic upon which 227 was based. The whole Prop 227 debate really would have been helpful if it had focussed public debate on HOW best to teach LEP students rather than deciding and imposing a method.

Prop 227 was partly founded on the faulty premise that the high drop out rate of LEP students is caused by their participation in bilingual education classes which are based on "flawed educational theories." In fact, there is evidence that LEP drop out rates are no higher than drop out rates for fluent English students, and in some cases lower.

Further, when applied correctly, current bilingual language acquisition theories work very well. I site the examplbes of the students graduating from a comprehensive five to seven year dual immersion bilingual programs. These students produce test scores consistently higher than even mainstream English-only students. (I refer to the Willow Glenn School of San Jose Unified. A comprehensive bilingual school whose students score so high and receive so many scholarships that the school is besieged with applications for entry each year.) Such results to not arise from "flawed educational theories" as charged in the Proposition, but rather from consistent and comprehensive application of correct theories.

Actually, linguists have a clear understanding of how human beings acquire language by hearing, saying, reading, and writing, each skill built upon prior knowledge. This understanding has been further attested by recent brain research.

It is also now clearer that humans learn to speak TWO languages in the following sequence: first, children learn social language and later academic language. LEP students first learn basic interpersonal language skills (BILS), then they develop higher level cognitions, critical thinking skills, and finally the abiltiy to use abstract language (CALP). CALP attainment is vital for all students since authorities now teach that mastering and manipulating higher level abstract terms and ideations, such as calculus or legal or poetic language, is the VERY KEY to higher income in our society.

Thus, English Language Learners must first acquire higher level concepts in their native language before they can successfully gradually transfer those concepts into English. This is NOT an unfounded theory, but at the heart of the controversy surrounding bilingual education.

It is also why comprehensive, K-6, English-Spanish dual immersion schools do so well. Fortuntely, Prop 227 permits dual immersion program because Spanish and English are both taught. However, dual immersion programs sometimes fail because the school district lacks sufficient bilingual staff to provide a comprehensive program. One problem is inconsistency, bilingual classes are perhaps offered one year but not the next, and there remains the ever-present challenge to hire and retain qualified bilingual teachers. Consequently, some districts try to focus on the lower grades. Nevertheless, students may be transitioned so quickly to English-only classrooms that the child has not acquired academic congitive skill in either language.

Thus, under the right conditions, bilingual Education is NOT a failure. Note the joy of a high school English class of Mandarin Chinese who struggled when studying Shakespeare until the teacher broke down and explained the concepts in Mandarin. After attaining basic conceptual understanding, the students were able to translate the ides in their minds so that when they returned to reading the English, they did so with zest.

You may ask, "Dr. Mike, how then do you explain why immigrants in times past learned English without bilingual education, and that even today some LEP students learn English well without participating in a bilingual classroom? First, many immigrants were adults the whose minds already functiouned conceptually in their native language. They simply learned to encode their native ideas into a second language. This conforms to language acquisition theory.

Secondly, many LEP students today are USA born and while some learn English well, others only speak social English and as yet are illiterate in academic English. This is also true of many fluent English speakers! But the real reason for different achievment levels in English Language Learners is parental example and support. When parents read aloud at home, when parents urge the learning of English, and follow through with the child to insure homework is completed, the student does very much better than in homes where LEP parents omit such supportive behaviors.

Luma Serminario, an English Language Development teacher in Gilroy's El Roble School, who has been teaching LEP students English for 30 years, affirms the vital role played by parents: " It has to be something more than immersion. The parents make a big difference. We had children of truck drivers who could read and children of engineers who could not. It depends on what the parents are doing at home" (Gilroy Dispatch, 9/11/98, p.A12).

In summary, Proposition 227 has ignited a public debate about bilingual education and may yet result in generating more light than heat in such a way that students will learn English and be better prepared to function successfully in the free society of the 21st century. These are some of my key goals and motives for running for the Governing Board of Trustees for the Gilroy Unified School District. I would appreciate your support on November 3, 1998.

Next Page: Position Paper 3

Candidate Page || Feedback to Candidate || This Race
November 1998 Home (Ballot Lookup) || About Smart Voter

Created from information supplied by the candidate: September 22, 1998 11:13
Smart Voter '98 <>
Copyright © 1998 League of Women Voters of California Education Fund.
The League of Women Voters neither supports nor opposes candidates for public office or political parties.