Bilingual Education In California

Connie CIeung and Dagmara Drabkin
Poverty & Prejudice: Our Schools Our Children
June 07, 1999

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

by Dagmara Drabkin

2.Chapter 1: Bilingual Education in Latino Community in East Menlo Park

by Dagmara Drabkin

3.Chapter 2: Bilingual Education in San Francisco

by Connie Cheung

4. Conclusion

by Connie Cheung


"They say that if you speak two languages, you're bilingual. If you speak three or more languages, you're multilingual," said Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini. "And if you speak only one language, well then, you're an American."

Background on Bilingual Education in California

Federal laws and court decisions stemming from the 1964 Civil Rights Act required public schools to provide special services for English language learners. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Lau V. Nichols confirmed that schools must take "affirmative steps" to ensure equal educational opportunities and help students, who did not speak English fluently, "overcome language barriers that impede equal participation" in education (the Lau Consent Decree). In many instances, this was interpreted as meaning some primary language instruction. California's response, the Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act of 1976, expired in 1987.

Bilingual education existed in one form or another for over thirty years now. However, many are concerned that bilingual education has not been effective in converting limited English proficient (LEP) students into fluent English speakers.

Educating LEP students is a big topic of discussion in California since the number of students who are not fluent in English soared from 520, 000 in 1985 to 1.4 million in 1998 (Los Angeles Times, 1998). 90% of all LEP students are Latino. San Francisco community has particularly high numbers of Asian LEP students. To put the numbers I perspective, California's population of limited-English students exceeds the total public school population of at least 38 states.

Last year, more than 5,800 schools statewide had at least 20 students with limited English skills. Of those schools, 1,150 did not move a single student into English fluency, according to Times analysis of state records. For more than half of those schools, it was a second year in a row of complete futility. Overall, fewer than 7% of limited-English students are becoming fluent each year (Los Angeles Times, 1998). With statistics like tat, it is no wonder then that close to 70% of Californians voted for Proposition 227, which puts an end to bilingual education in California. Even Latino community is split in their opinion on bilingual education: a recent Times poll found that 50% supported the measure to end most bilingual education. Only 32% of Latino voters opposed Proposition 227.

Proposition 227

Since bilingual education has not been affective in raising English proficiency in LEP students, Proposition 227 was passed effective 1998/99 academic year. Proposition 227 terminates bilingual education as it was known prior to June 1998. However, according to federal law, bilingual education still must be provided if there are at least 20 children of the same primary language. if a public school violates that, it will loose federal funding. On the other hand, if a public school violates Proposition 227, it will loose state funding. As a result, public schools came to the following compromise: for the first 30 days of the school year, everybody is taught in English, regardless how little English, if any, children may have. At the end of this period children take an English test. Based on the results of this test, parents make a decision whether they want their child in an English class or a bilingual class.

Chapter 1: Bilingua1 Education in Latino Community 

I have interviewed several teachers from Ravens Wood School District about the effect of Proposition 227 and about the effect of the newly introduced 30-day trial period. From their observation of children, they noticed that limited-English students fell quite a bit behind during these 30 days in the curriculum. in other words, LEP students were robbed of a month of productive schoolwork. What doesn't seem sensible is the fact that even if parents knew from day one that they want their children in a bilingual class, they still had to wait 30 days for the school to acknowledge their decision and watch their children fall behind.

Case study: Bell Haven School in Menlo Park, CA

The overwhelming majority of Latino limited English proficient students come from low-income families. In this respect, Bell Haven School in East Menlo Park, which has K through 8th grade students, is a representative example of bilingual education available to the impoverished part of the Latino community.

Generally speaking, teachers in Bell Haven are disappointed that Proposition 227 was passed. They strongly favor bilingual education because young children are very quick to pick up languages, and it would be beneficial for both Latino and Caucasian students to be fluent in both Spanish and English. However, even prior to Proposition 227, bilingual education was a poorly run program with a lack of resources and absence of a defined curriculum. As a result, kids in bilingual classes did not get proper education in either language. (In Bell Haven, only English and Math were taught in both English and Spanish; the rest of the classes were taught in English only.) It is not surprising then that a considerable number of Latino parents chose to enroll their children in English. as opposed to bilingual classes, even if their kids completely tacked English skills; these parents hope that their children will learn at least one language properly. Proposition 227 increased the number of Latino parents who favor English classes over bilingual ones. Prior to Proposition 227, 500/0 of the classes were bilingual. Currently, only 16% of the classes are bilingual because fewer parents chose to put their children in bilingual classes.

Bell Haven elementary English-only class teachers say that the majority of their classes consists of Latino students. Most of these Latino students, teachers feel, would benefit from bilingual education because their English is too limited and they lag behind in classes because of that. Their parents' knowledge of English is even worse, so they cannot help their kids with homework when kids are enrolled in English-only classes. As a result, Latino children lose a very important family support system.

According to a number of affluent educators, parental involvement is crucial in a child's education. However, parental involvement is minimal in impoverished Latino communities, including Bell Haven School. Parents are often tied up holding 2 jobs or raising younger children. The best they can do is to leave work once in a while to help drive their kids to various fieldtrips. Bilingual education programs needs to recognize difficulties that low-income Latino families lace and set up some kind of a program to assist a more active parental involvement.

Teachers in Bell Haven also point out that bilingual education has always lacked funding and supplies. Bilingual classes never had any books in addition to primary texts for reading and math, while English-only classrooms are crammed with lots and lots of books. There is not even an established curriculum for bilingual classes: bilingual teachers are given primary textbooks, and it is up to them what they are going to make of the class. Because of lack of resources and absence of curriculum, teachers prefer teaching English-only classes, where they feel they have a better chance to really teach their students.

Since the lack of curriculum for bilingual classes was such a big concern, I have searched on the web to see what resources bilingual teachers have available. It turns out there are a number of places where one can go and get sample curricula for different grade levels. University of Texas in Austin, for example, has been actively working on developing and improving bilingual curriculum. However, there seems to be so much politics involved in the debate on bilingual education, and it is understandable that teachers themselves don't take much initiative to install some kind of defined curriculum since they it is not well supported by the school.

Bell Haven has a bilingual education committee, which consists of parents and staff members who meet monthly. Those meetings are always well attended, but unfortunately their decisions poorly translate into school regiment. Some teachers feel that those parents simply do not realize how much power they have. Latino parents tend to be too trusting in school administration, and they accept everything that school administration tells them at face value. They simply do not know how much power they have as parents. A large part of them are relatively recent immigrants, and often they do not feel in the position to demand quality bilingual education they are entitled to.

Why bilingual education has not been effective:

As it can be seen from the case study, several problems arise in bilingual education:

1. Lack of parents' involvement due to their poor English literacy and being tied up with

2 jobs in order to provide for their family

2. Unaccountability of schools for failing to raise English fluency level in LEP students

3. Schools' apathy to provide quality bilingual education

4. Too much racial politics involved in bilingual education

Possible Solutions:

1. Since parental involvement is crucial in education, it is important to recognize that parents, who barely speak English and who have little time to spare between putting many hours at work, will not be likely to get involved much in their children's education. Parents who speak little or no English are often disconnected from American schools because they cannot yet communicate their sophisticated, adult thoughts in a new language, and because participating in school the American style of parental participation in school is a new concept for most language minority parents. They need help in adapting to this new role. Therefore, I propose that in order for schools to succeed in making limited English proficiency students into fluent speakers, they should offer evening and weekend classes to raise parents' English proficiency. The same time can also be partially used for their children’s teachers to come in and speak to them in order to establish a more prominent contact as opposed to once a month bilingual meetings, if those exist at all.

2. Although prior to Proposition 227 coming into effect all California public schools received state funding specifically for bilingual education, schools were not held at all accountable if any of their students failed to advance. In fact, one-third of the schools that failed last year to move students into English fluency were teaching only in English. And many of the rest teach only in English. Therefore I propose that schools that receive bilingual education funding should be held accountable for the number of LEP students to become fluent in English and successfully adjust in English only classes after their transfer from bilingual classes. Schools should be monitored for the amount of bilingual instruction they actually offer in what they claim to be bilingual classes.

3. School administration seems to be quite apathetic about properly enforcing and supporting bilingual education in their schools. To solve that problem, schools should get more incentives to raise English fluency in their students. Perhaps, there can be inter school competitions as to how many of their students become fluent in English. There can be obligatory statewide tests that monitor LEP students' progress. Based on the results, 3 most successful schools should get some monetary rewards for schools.

4. One of the biggest problems of bilingual education is the fact that too much politics is involved in this problem. As the number of Latino immigrants grows and as public hears about problems of illegal immigration, people begin to resent spending tax payers' money to provide quality education to new comers. ft is a very painful subject to many people. To solve this problem I propose that California public schools eliminate English-only classes and make all classes bilingual. This way funding will not have to be split between bilingual and English-only classes. Education will be uniform throughout the California school system, and will not depend on a number of LEP students in each

school. Although this proposal might sound radical, it really is not. Kids learn new languages when they are young. If they attend bilingual classes from kindergarten on, they will be fluent in two languages for the rest of their lives. European kids are fluent in 3 or more languages by the time they graduate from high school. American kids often know just one. It is about time we catch up with the global environment and become more aware that there are more languages than just English. This way Americans will not be labeled monolingual, as Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini pointed out.

Chapter 2: Bi1ingua1 Education in San Francisco Connie Cheung


Cultural diversity is a notable characteristic of San Francisco. In particular, over fifty percent of San Francisco's K-12 students speak a native language other than English, and various bilingual programs have been instituted to help these language-minority students. Beyond doubt, the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 has raised many controversies among teachers, parents, and students in San Francisco. Proposition 227 challenges the very idea of "bilingual education" and suggests that it be replaced by an all-English immersion program, which requires teachers to give instructions in English only. Has bilingual education been a complete failure in San Francisco? k the idea so flawed that it has to be replaced by a completely different alternative? Js Proposition 227 really an alternative'? This chapter attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of current bilingual education system in San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), focusing on the perspective of its Asian community.


Bilingual education has been a major channel through which San Francisco immigrant students receive assistance in adjusting to the American language and culture. In January 1997, SFUSD established the Language Academy, a department devoted to promoting language education in San Francisco, and an increasing number of schools have begun to adopt various language programs implemented by the Language Academy in the past two years. These programs, grouped under the English-Plus Program, fall into four major categories: Total immersion, Two-Way Development, Dual Language Enrichment, and Bilingual. They emphasize the importance of acquiring language skills in English plus one other language. With the exception of Total Immersion, all these programs are at least partially targeted at helping language-minority students. Two-Way Development and Dual Language Enrichment put language-majority and language-minority students in the same classroom. With an emphasis on peer helping, they are structured so native English speakers learn another language at the same time when language-minority students learn English. The Bilingual program, on the other hand, is specifically targeted at helping language-minority students adjust to the American language and culture. All three designs offer classroom instructions in both English and another language, and, to a certain degree, bilingual teachers in Dual Language and Bilingual are free to adjust the percentage of each language used depending on the level and needs of individual classes.

The Language Academy

According to an Asian representative of the Language Academy, Lee', language-minority students usually take a standardized English proficiency exam upon enrolling in an SFUSD school. Students will then be classified as FEP (Fluent English Proficient), LEP (Limited English Proficient), or NEP (Non English Proficient) according to their exam results. Based on his/her classification, a student will be placed in either a regular English-only class, or one of the dual-language programs. Parents can also request their children to be placed in a bilingual class even if they are FEP students.2

Although the Language Academy has been established for only two years, its programs have been met with tremendous success. To better outline its objectives and methods, staff members from the Language Academy have come up with a set of specific guidelines, called the Ten Academic Master Principles (AMPs), to ensure quality implementation of bilingual programs. Among the sixteen schools that have pledged to follow the AMPs, all but one made significant improvements in English reading as well as other subjects.3

However, the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 has marked a major setback in SFUSD's bilingual education. While San Francisco must comply with the initiative, its residents "made a resounding declaration regarding the importance of communicating in several languages and in giving language-minority children access to the educational core by defeating the proposition."4 As a result, SFUSD offers intensive English-only programs (required by Proposition 227) as well as English Plus programs (required by the Lau Consent Decree), and parents have the right to choose among the two streams.

Laws like Proposition 227 instigate efforts to evaluate and improve existing bilingual programs. When asked about the biggest obstacles encountered by bilingual programs and possible solutions, Lee identified three major areas that needed improvements: resource funding, parental involvement, and after-school outreach. Limited funding does not only affect the Language Academy; rather, it constitutes a problem consistently faced by the whole SFUSD. Since the focus of this paper is on bilingual education, this problem will not be discussed in great details here. Lack of parental involvement, on the other hand, has major implications when evaluating bilingual programs, and Lee feels that the root of the problem lies in a common misunderstanding of what the term "bilingual education" means. Although the Language Academy offers various parent workshops and seminars, both in English and in Chinese, to explain its objectives, programs, and ways through which parents can get involved with their children's education, many Chinese parents still have misconceptions about English Plus programs. They are reluctant to place their children in bilingual classes because they fear that a label of LEP (Limited English Proficient) will undermine their kids' academic capability. To that end, they feel that bilingual classes will not offer quite the same standard education as regular classes, and, as a result, their children will learn less in a remedial bilingual setting. Lee's response to this problem is that more effort needs to be put into publicizing the correct concept of bilingual education, that it serves to provide a smoother linguistic and cultural transition for immigrant students, and that by no means is it inferior to English-only instruction. Last but not least, current bilingual programs only reach out to students while they are sitting in the bilingual classroom. Lee feels that more after-school tutorial programs can be implemented for students who wish to gain language and cultural experience beyond their classroom education. They will supplement bilingual classes and hopefully accelerate children's learning.

Lee personally feels that although there is still room for improvement, current bilingual programs are overall helpful to language-minority students. While the optimal learning model varies among individuals, some students do benefit greatly from bilingual education, especially those who have no previous English background. To require all students to sit in English-only classrooms like Proposition 227 does is not realistic in practice. Students will fall behind in other subjects, let alone English, because they cannot follow and understand what their teachers say. Proposition 227 also assumes that students can become fluent in English after just one year of English-only Immersion classes whereas in reality, it is almost impossible for non-English speaking students to acquire a good solid foundation in English comparable to native speakers in just a year.

Two Case Studies

School A - Richmond district

School A in Richmond district is one of the many San Francisco elementary schools offering the Dual Language Development program. According to a bilingual paraprofessional (teacher assistant), Chan, the school has a total of about twelve teachers, four of them Chinese bilingual teachers. School A offers one bilingual class for each grade level from kindergarten through third grade, and two regular classes from kindergarten through fifth grade. Depending on the English proficiency of the class as a whole, bilingual class teachers decide the proportion of English and Chinese used in their instruction: Noteworthy is the fact that bilingual classes carry out exactly the same curricula in standard subjects like mathematics and social science as regular classes, the only difference being the language of instruction. In the first-grade bilingual class that Chan helps with, the teacher delivers her instruction mostly in English, with occasional explanations in Chinese. On top of regular subjects, students in the class are also required to learn half an hour of Chinese every day. They use Chinese textbooks provided by SFUSD, and all instruction is in Chinese during these special sessions. Paraprofessionals like Chan in bilingual classrooms serve mainly as individual and small group tutors for children who are less proficient relative to the class as a whole and who experience difficulties in understanding English instruction.

Chan remarks that School A's dual language classes are not only for language-minority students. Last year, parents of a native English-speaking second grader requested their child to be placed in a bilingual class, because they wanted to expose her to the Chinese culture and language. The result was very encouraging. The girl mingled well with language-minority students in the class, and peer learning accelerated the language progress for both parties. On the other hand, bilingual classes are indispensable for immigrant students. At the very least, the presence of bilingual staffs provides language-minority students with a sense of security. Students who have none or very little working English skills feel more secured in knowing that they can always turn to someone who speaks their native language. Bilingual programs make English less intimidating to students, and they often find school to be more welcoming and appealing than it would otherwise be.

School B - Chinatown

School B in Chinatown also adopts the Dual Language Development program. Because of its location, the school has many new Chinese immigrants from low-income families, who know very limited English. In the 1998-~999 school year, School B offers bilingual classes from kindergarten through fourth grade, but due to reduction in bilingual funding, it will not offer fourth grade bilingual class next year. Furthermore, it is also reducing the number of bilingual paraprofessionals. More than 45% of the students in School B are Chinese, and a result, SFUSD stopped sending more Chinese kindergarten students to the school at the beginning of the year in compliant with affirmative action. However, the law requires a certain number of bilingual students to open a bilingual class in a specific school. After prolonged negotiation, SFUSD resumed sending Chinese students to School B, enabling the continuation of its kindergarten bilingual education.

Like in School A bilingual classes in School B follow exactly the same curricula as regular classes, and bilingual teachers have the freedom to choose the language of instruction based on the needs of the class. According to a bilingual staff, Wang, School B is among one of the seven or eight schools in SFUSD to adopt a new English language program called "Success for All" in conjunction with the existing bilingual programs. "Success for All" features a daily special English tutorial session aimed at helping language-minority students specifically with their language difficulties. Wang emphasizes that this program does not replace bilingual education, but it is built upon existing bilingual teaching. The two programs complement each other in providing a complete and versatile curriculum for language-minority students.6

Wang stresses the important role of bilingual education in helping new Immigrants adjust to the new environment. He notices that most language-minority students feel particularly insecure and incompetent compared to their native counterparts because of difficulties in communication. As a result, they fall behind in classes and get discouraged more easily, and they have a higher chance of isolating themselves. With that in mind, bilingual classes do more than just teaching students in a language they al-c familiar with in addition, they also enable bilingual staffs to monitor these students' development more closely and offer counsels if necessary.

Because most immigrant students are from low-income families, many parents do not speak any English. Bilingual staffs thus serve as the bridge between these parents and the school. While most parents recognize the role bilingual classes play in their children's transitional period, Wang notes that some parents are hesitant in sending their kids to bilingual classes, for fear that bilingual classes will slow down their English learning. Wang admits that language-minority students may acquire listening and oral skills faster in an English-only classroom, but English-only instruction also entails sacrifices of other subjects such as science and mathematics, which would be much better delivered if students' native language were at least partially used. Striving to achieve an optimal balance, Wang asserts, is a continuous goal of bilingual education in School B.


In conclusion, I will summarize the overall effectiveness of bilingual education in San Francisco from the Asian perspective, identify obstacles faced by existing programs, and propose solutions to these problems.

One important observation in doing this study is that bilingual education definitely does more good than harm. While its influence varies from school to school, it is generally agreed that some students are undeniably in need of the bilingual style of teaching. Although bilingual education might not get the desired results in some schools, it is the implementation rather than the idea itself that might need improvements. Instead of getting rid of bilingual programs altogether and replacing them with English-only Immersion classes as suggested by Proposition 227, we should focus on refining and improving the implementation of this workable and good idea.

One of the major obstacles to bilingual education is the lack of communication between SFUSD and bilingual parents. Misconceptions about bilingual education have distressed parents who would have otherwise given English Plus Program their full support. As a result, I believe that SFUSD should make it a priority to instill the correct understanding of bilingual education through mass media, information booklets in various languages, parental conferences, as well as practical guidelines for better communication between individual schools and bilingual parents. In addition, it should offer more seminars and workshops to teach parents how to encourage and help with their children's learning. Finally, Language Academy should develop closer links among bilingual parents and participating schools, so teachers and parents can work together to meet the children's specific needs. If bilingual parents were supportive and actively involved in their kids' education, these students would have a much more positive attitude in dealing with all the frustrations in trying to adapt to a brand new environment.

In addition, most bilingual programs in San Francisco concentrate on in-class instruction, but neither space nor time should limit the scope of education. Therefore, I propose that the Language Academy offer after-school enrichment programs for language-minority students. These programs should focus both on language tutoring and cultural exposure. Students will not only receive tutoring for academic subjects, but they will also learn about the American culture through films, field trips, and other educational activities. These programs should be run by experienced bilingual helpers whom students can trust and confide in during their critical period of linguistic and cultural transition. Together with parental involvement, they will provide for children a comfortable and encouraging out-of-classroom setting with ample active learning opportunities.

Conclusion & Suggestions Connie Cheung

Based on our research and case studies, we decide that bilingual education is favorable from both the Latino and Asian communities in the San Francisco bay area. Although current statistics regarding bilingual education might not seem promising, we believe that it has the potential to really make a difference Instead of eradicating the whole system and replacing it with English-only immersion Program as suggested by Proposition 227, we should spend more effort in improving existing system. After identifying some of the problems faced by bilingual education in our case studies, we would like to make some general suggestions.

Parental Involvement

While some parents do not think their involvement in their children's education is important, we should make an honest effort to help those parents who do think so but cannot put it into action due to various reasons. Parents of many bilingual students speak very limited or no English at all, on top of the fact that they are not familiar with the whole U.S. education system. As a result, they can neither help their kids with their homework, nor can they voice their opinions freely. In addition, many bilingual students come from low-income families. Their parents often have to hold two jobs to support the family, and at the same time look after younger kids when they get back home because child care service is not affordable to them. To help with these parents, schools should implement appropriate measures to enable bilingual parents' participation. First of all, they can better inform parents of their children's education and progress through more frequent meetings with bilingual teachers. Parents often feel more comfortable expressing their concerns in their own language. Schools should also ensure that parents understand the different ways through which they can help with their kids' education. like providing a supportive setting, even if they cannot physically help with their schoolwork. Schools can also encourage busy parents to convene with teachers and other parents by providing childcare service while they attend parent meetings. After all, all three parties (students. parents, and schools) will benefit from parental participation.

Correct Understanding of Bilingual Education

We should also ensure that bilingual education is not misunderstood as being inferior to regular education. Parents should know that the purpose of bilingual education is to help their kids in their transitional period, and students will by no means learn less in bilingual classes. Bilingual curricula are very similar to standard curricula in most cases, and the only difference is the language of instruction. To ensure correct understanding, we should educate the general public about the concept of bilingual education, either through documentary productions, or multi-language booklets and conferences. Besides bilingual students and their parents, we should make sure that other people also have a correct and complete picture of bilingual education.

Programs in Conjunction with Bilingual Education

On top of bilingual classes, we can adopt other programs to better assist immigrant students in their linguistic and cultural experience. Programs like 'Success for All" specifically target at teaching immigrants English, and they have proved to be highly successful when used with bilingual education. Schools can also offer after-school enrichment programs that offer general help in students' adjustment to the American culture. After all, being an American involves much more than just learning the language. If we could provide more educational opportunities in out-of-classroom settings, immigrant students would certainly integrate more easily into the American society.

Universal Bilingual Education

As radical as it may sound, we believe that the ultimate solution lies in making all classes bilingual in America. Many schools in Europe have adopted this method of teaching, and they have found it to be very successful. Among all subjects taught in elementary to high school, languages often prove to be the most useful in everyday life. Studies have shown that people learn other languages fastest when they are young, therefore, we should start language education early on. On the other hand, immigrant students will feel less isolated because of their lack of communication skills, thus making their transition much smoother and easier. We understand that universal bilingual education is very difficult to implement in reality as well as gain support, but we do believe that it is workable in theory and that it will provide the solution we have been looking for. One nation does not necessarily mean one language - it will work just as well if everyone speaks two.

  1. To preserve confidentiality, names of all interviews and schools are fictitious.
  2. Language Academy representative; Interview, 5/27/1999
  3. SFUSD Language Academy 1998-99 Annual Report,
  4. Ibid
  5. Chinese bilingual paraprofessional; Interview, 5/20/1999
  6. Chinese bilingual staff, Interview; 5/3/1999



1. Anderson, Nick and Pyle, Amy; Bilingual Classes: A Knotty Issue; Los Angeles Times, May 18 1998

2. Kolasky, Bob; More Racial Politics in California?;

3. "Honest proposal" by Latino parents in San Francisco; Honest Proposal/toc.html

4.Teacher in Bell Haven School in East Menlo Park; Interviews 4/1 7/99 - 5/10/99.

5. SFUSD Language Academy Representative; Interview 5/27/99.

6. SFUSD Language Academy 1998-99 Annual Report, Annual Report

7. Chinese Bilingual Paraprofessional; Interview 5/20/99

8. Chinese Bilingual Staff; Interview 5/03/99

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