Glendale teacher Rebecca Quintero spent a recent morning encouraging her fourth-graders to write about the joys of summer for an English assignment. But some of her Spanish, Armenian, Korean and Tagalog speakers were confused at how to begin and their textbook offered limited guidance.
What Quintero needed, she said, was a fourth-grade book that would support students with varying degrees of English proficiency.
"It would be incredible if all teachers had this so that we don't have to always use supplemental materials," said Quintero, in her classroom at Columbus Elementary School.
In the debate over how best to teach English to immigrant students, teachers like Quintero and others say they are struggling to meet academic standards with too few tools.
These educators argue that current approaches to language development have failed the state's 1.6 million English learners, leaving them lagging behind native English speakers on test scores and the state's new high school exit exam.
Legislation approved by the state Senate on Thursday, by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), would instruct textbook publishers to provide additional reading and writing support for English learners and give school districts discretion in purchasing the materials. The bill, SB 1769, which was approved by the Assembly last Friday, could reach the governor's desk today.
While the legislation has gained wide support, it has also become a symbol of the fierce philosophical clash over English instruction in California, with many opponents, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, insisting that the option would lead to lower standards and segregation of students based on English ability.
The debate echoes the angst provoked by Proposition 227, which passed in 1998 and mandates that all students learn to read and write in English.
Whichever course the state takes will have profound implications for students who fail to boost their language skills and also for California's future economic and social health, educators and others say. Research shows that immigrants who improve their English have higher earnings, more job opportunities and pay more taxes.
Inadequate English skills limit the potential for economic competitiveness, productivity and the quality of life, according to a recent national report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.
The question facing California policy makers: What is the fastest, most efficient way to improve student language skills to meet more demanding expectations?
"Most kids who start out in the elementary system will transition to English-only courses pretty fast so it's not a question of whether they will learn English," said Arturo Gonzalez, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. "It's about learning the content of subject matter like history, math or grammar that will make them competitive with their peers a couple of years down the line. What's the most effective approach to speed up English learning and the acquisition of other topics? That's really the policy question and challenge to California education."
There is little research that offers guidance. A recent five-year study on the effects of Proposition 227, commissioned by the state Legislature, found no evidence that either bilingual education or full English immersion is more effective. The study, by the American Institutes for Research and the education group WestEd, found quality of instruction plays a more important role. It also found a persistent achievement gap between English learners and native English speakers in most subject areas.
Although the gaps have not widened despite an increase in the percentage of English learners, the study's results argue for allowing school districts more options, said co-author Tom Parrish.
"Now that we have an outcome standard that we agree on and a single criterion to which schools are being held accountable with clear consequences, I would argue that we should give schools some latitude about how they are going to get there," Parrish said.
Other critics say the state is ignoring proven best practices.
"People lack the understanding of what it means to learn a language," said Norm Gold, an educational consultant who formerly worked as bilingual compliance manager for the California Department of Education. "They believe it's all wrapped up in learning to read and are so focused on English language arts standards that they can't see that kids need to build their comprehension to gain fluency."
Many educators -- though this is not universal -- say they want textbooks that combine reading and writing exercises that are the core of English class with added instruction on language development for students with fewer skills. Textbook publishers have indicated they could accommodate such a request, supporters said, and such a text, written to California's high academic standards, would probably become a national model, they add.