Bilingual instruction proposal under fire
Mercury News
April 17, 2003
Chuck Carroll


Proposed changes to the Chinese-English immersion program at Collins Elementary School in Cupertino are causing some hard feelings among two factions: those who back the administration's plan to increase the amount of Mandarin used in class and those who feel the administration hasn't made a persuasive case for the change and are urging the district to slow down.

Both sides cite studies and surveys to back their beliefs, but it seems to matter little in this fracas over a fundamental change in the teaching method of the school's innovative language program.

``What we're saying here is we like the program'' as it is, said Chung Bao, who has a daughter in first grade and a son entering kindergarten next year.

He believes reducing the amount of English being used in the immersion classrooms might later depress the children's test scores on English-language tests and hurt their chances of getting into good colleges.

``We want our kids to be more competitive in the future,'' Bao said.

In the current Cupertino program, the idea is to teach in both languages, with the goal of making students proficient in reading, writing and speaking both Mandarin and English by the end of fifth grade. Unlike typical language programs, subjects are taught in both languages.

In theory, the presence of students proficient in both languages reinforces the learning process through interactive play and work.

So far so good. But some Chinese parents say a proposed shift in emphasis toward more Mandarin in the early grades would violate the promises the Cupertino Union School District made when it recruited children for the program.

In the program, Mandarin and English are not taught as distinct classes; instead, all subjects are taught in both languages. Currently, about 50 percent of instruction is done in Mandarin and 50 percent in English -- except kindergarten, which is 70 percent Mandarin and 30 percent English. Under the administration's proposal, the ratio of Mandarin to English would be increased significantly in K-3, depending on grade level. By the time a student reaches fourth grade, instruction would be evenly split by language.

But the parents say they understood at the time of their recruitment that instruction would be half in English and half in Mandarin in the lower grades as well. They complain that most parents were not informed of the proposed change until March 15, a month or more after parents signed their kids up for kindergarten. Some said they suspect the proposal was kept secret because the administration knew it would cause an uproar and wanted to show the board of trustees a unified front.

Even now, they say, they have never been given a full explanation for why the change is being proposed, or been exposed to the research backing it up. More to the point, however, these parents believe less emphasis on teaching English would hurt their children in the long run.

Moreover, the parents say, Mandarin is not so closely related to English as are Spanish or French, and those models shouldn't necessarily be wholly transferred to the Mandarin-English program. They contend that in the absence of research about English-Mandarin programs in similar, well-educated communities, it's foolish to tinker with a formula that seems to be working fine in Cupertino, based on test scores.

But Karen Barrett, Collins' principal, argues that research clearly shows that two-way immersion programs work best when the target language -- Mandarin in this case -- gets more emphasis in the lower grades.

The upset group of parents, Barrett added, represents only a small portion of the parents with kids in the program. And those parents don't seem to realize that the reduced-English curriculum in the lower grades would not affect children currently in the program, she said. The changes would start with next year's kindergarten classes.

One parent, who spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against her children, echoed a frequently repeated allegation. ``They don't want to talk about it,'' said the parent, who is fighting the de-emphasis of English. ``They just say they are the experts. . . . They say, `If you don't like it, you can leave.' ''

The critics said their survey of parents found that 77 percent favored an equal emphasis on each language. To change it now -- especially without giving parents a chance to comment -- is unjust and unfair, they say. There is research, they argue, that says parental and community input and support is crucial to the success of these programs and that they didn't get any say in drafting the proposal, which was aired publicly only after parents had signed up.

The parents say they aren't trying to dictate the percentages. They just want the administration to consider the research they have tried to bring to the administration's attention and to live up to the promises the administration made when children were recruited for the program.

Barrett said parents' views should be considered but not determinative. She called a meeting last week to let parents air their concerns and promised a response in the next few weeks.

Grace Mah, a Palo Alto parent who has a child on the program's waiting list, supports Barrett's view.

``The percentage of English and Mandarin shouldn't be decided by popular vote,'' Mah said. ``It should be left up to the experts.''

As principal, Barrett said she intends to do what is best for the whole community, not just a small segment of it. She said she plans to finalize any changes by the end of the school year.

``What's really the saddest part of this is it's become so divisive that it's become almost a racial concern,'' Barrett said. ``We thought we were above all of that.''

Contact Chuck Carroll at or (408) 920-5206.