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Bilingual or Immersion?

Bilingual or Immersion?

A new group of studies is providing fresh evidence that it’s not the language of instruction that counts, but the quality of education

By Kendra Hamilton

Eight years ago, Proposition 227 virtually eliminated bilingual education in California’s K-12 schools. Since then, the English-only approach has made inroads in states like Arizona and Massachusetts, where ballot initiatives have created even more restrictive “English immersion” programs than California’s. In Colorado, backers of a failed ballot initiative are trying again, this time with a campaign for a constitutional amendment.

But a group of new studies is providing fresh evidence of what many researchers have been saying all along: English immersion has more political appeal than educational merit.

“We’re saying it’s not possible given the data available to definitively answer the question ‘which is better — bilingual or immersion?’” says Dr. Amy Merickel, co-author of “Effects of the Implementation of Proposition 227 on the Education of English Learners K-12.” The five-year, $2.5 million study was conducted for the state of California by the American Institutes for Research and WestEd.

“We don’t see conclusive evidence that bilingual education is superior to English immersion, and we don’t see conclusive evidence for the reverse,” Merickel says. “We think it’s the wrong question. It’s not the model of instruction that matters — it’s the quality.”

Dr. Tim Shanahan, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois-Chicago and director of its Center for Literacy, agrees.

Shanahan and a team of more than a dozen researchers from institutions across the nation recently completed a synthesis of all the available research on literacy, including second language literacy for the U.S. Department of Education.

“When we looked at all the past attempts to get at this issue and analyzed their data, essentially what we concluded was that, in fact, kids did somewhat better if they received some amount of instruction in their home language,” Shanahan says. “How much? It was not clear from the available data. What should it look like? That wasn’t entirely clear either. But across the board, the impact of some instruction in home language seemed to be beneficial.

“But one of the things that surprised me and that stood out for me was the sheer volume of the research that was not devoted to these issues,” he adds. “If you look at the data, most of the research is on [which] language of instruction [is better]. That issue has so sucked up all the oxygen that all those other issues of quality clearly are being neglected.”

Such conclusions run sharply counter to the assertions of many defenders of English immersion. In 1997, millionaire Ron Unz began a campaign against bilingual education, forming an advocacy organization with a simple name and message — English for the Children. That organization helped push Proposition 227 to a landslide victory in California, claiming 61 percent of the vote. Two years later, citing dramatic gains on test scores for immigrant children, the English for the Children movement moved to Arizona, where Proposition 203 notched 63 percent of the vote. In 2002, Massachusetts followed suit with Question 2, which was passed with 70 percent support. But in Colorado, voters rejected the English-immersion philosophy, turning it down 55 percent to 44 percent at the polls.

But the movement began to fizzle after 2002. The offices of English for the Children have closed, and studies have consistently been punching holes in core tenets of the English-only argument.

First to fall were the “dramatic gains” in test scores. Proponents of English-immersion stated emphatically that test scores for immigrant students had shot up 40 percent between 1998 and 2000. But research teams from Stanford University, Arizona State University and others pointed out that scores had risen for all students during that period. They also noted that the rising test scores were due to the fact that California had introduced a new achievement test and not to the effects of Prop 227.

More damning was the failure of Prop 227 to hold up its central promise. English for the Children had repeatedly claimed that results could be achieved with only a one-year transition period for English learners.

“The one-year limit is a fantasy,” says Dr. Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “In California and Arizona, English learners are currently gaining less than one level per year out of five, where level five means ‘ready for the mainstream.’

“That means that a child starting with no English will take at least five years before ‘transitioning.’ In Massachusetts, after three years of study, only half of the English learners are eligible to be considered for regular instruction,” he says.

Merickel’s AIR/WestEd research team noted several exemplary programs during the course of their study. Some of the programs were bilingual, others were English immersion and some were “dual immersion” — providing instruction in both Spanish and English.

Prop 227 has actually been a useful tool, she says, for forcing the state to focus much-needed attention on the non-English speaking population. Some former foes of the proposition, she says, “have come to see it as a positive thing.”

But Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, an advocacy coalition formed in 1998, isn’t willing to go so far.

“The truth is Prop 227 was a horrible blow for us, but if that was all that happened to us since 1998, we could have galvanized attention, made our points” and worked to ease the law’s most restrictive elements, she says.
But Prop 227 was the first of a wave of reform movements, each more restrictive than its predecessor. First came a flurry of one-size-fits-all, skill-based reading programs, crafted to meet the curricular needs specified in Prop. 227.

“They allow no accommodation for non-native speakers, and they’re sweeping the country,” Spiegel-Coleman says.

And then there are the harsh accountability systems mandated by No Child Left Behind.

“There are these people who have so much invested in these English-only reading programs and accountability systems who do not want to admit that what they’re doing is wrong for kids,” Spiegel-Coleman says.

Indeed, the stakes in these political battles over education could not be higher. According to U.S. Census figures, the number of children living in homes where English is not the primary language more than doubled from 1979 to 1999, from 6 million to 14 million. California was home to more than 1.4 million English learners — or nearly 40 percent of all such public school students in the nation (excluding Puerto Rico).

These “language minority” students face formidable obstacles in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The dropout rate is 31 percent for language minority children who speak English, compared with 51 percent for language minority kids who do not and only 10 percent for the general population.

“At some point,” says Shanahan, “we better get serious about immigration, about integrating immigrants as productive, tax-paying and social security-supporting parts of our work force. To do these things, they have to be able to do the work that we do in the United States — that means we have to be making quality choices to provide them with a quality education.”

But the discussion about quality has only begun, says Shanahan, noting that his review found only 17 studies concerned with educational quality, compared with more than 450 studies examining types of reading programs.

Meanwhile the discussion about the language of instruction — a discussion Shanahan says is deeply political — seems never-ending.

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