Bilingual study: no clear-cut answers

EDUCATION: But a researcher says schools must give more support in the students' native language.

SANTA ANA, CA—School board members suggested Tuesday that the way to improve the academic achievement and fluency of limited-English students is focusing on the basics of reading, writing and math.

But the chief author of a new study on the effectiveness of bilingual-education programs in the Santa Ana Unified School District said the board must consider a trade-off _ between academics and English.

“Sometimes you may have to give up (some) English language fluency in order to attain academic achievement,” said Doug Mitchell, a professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Mitchell’s study analyzed test results and progress in gaining fluency of more than 30,000 students over the past three years.

The study, which cost $ 51,508, was released at a time of growing controversy in Orange County and California over bilingual education. Four of Orange County’s 27 school districts have received state waivers to use English-only instruction. Signatures are being gathered for a statewide ballot measure to ban most non-English instruction.

Santa Ana officials ordered the report to help determine which program works best _ English immersion or instruction in the students’ native language. They hoped the report would shed factual light on a topic that has become increasingly politicized.

It didn’t.

“We looked withgreat anticipation to this study to give us more concrete answers,” board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji said. “I think what we learned _ what we already know _ is we’re dealing with the human element. “

More than 90 percent of the 36,000 limited-English-proficient students in Santa Ana Unified speak Spanish. About half of those students are taught at least part-time in Spanish, while others are immersed in English.

One of Mitchell’s key conclusions was that average students in both programs require five to eight years to become fluent in English _ nearly double the estimate in most studies.

What schools must do is provide more support in the students’ native language and allow more time to test them in English, he said. His analysis found that reading scores fall by about two grade levels when students switch from Spanish to English-language tests, an experience he called demoralizing.

Board member Rosemary Avila said the solution was teaching students English in kindergarten and pre-school so they don’t fall behind to begin with.

“Now we wait until the task is monumental instead of undertaking it when the task is easy,” she said. “A younger child can catch up faster. “

Board President Nativo Lopez said the solution is spending more of each school day on the three R’s _ in English and Spanish _ by adopting a proposal by Superintendent Al Mijares to give art, science and physical education a back seat to the basics.

“I’m coming down on the side of increased instructional minutes on core academic subjects,” Lopez said. “I’m convinced we can do both _ teach English and academics. We can find a balance. “

Lopez still hoped that the study quells some of the political rhetoric over bilingual education.

“Everybody’s looking for a silver bullet and there isn’t one,” he said. “This shows it can’t be reduced to a slogan or a jingle. “

But advocates of English-only instruction dismissed the Santa Ana study as irrelevant to the current debate.

Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher who is co-chairwoman of the “English for Children” ballot initiative campaign to end bilingual education, called the study a waste of money.

“People are looking for answers and this didn’t say anything,” she said.

Some findings in Santa Anabilingual study

Here are some of the findings of the study of bilingual education in Santa Ana Unified School District conducted by a team of researchers at the University of California, Riverside:

Differences in achievement are determined less by the school’s program than by such factors as family income, parent education and transiency.

Students in Spanish-language programs become literate rapidly in the early elementary grades but fall behind when instruction switches to English.

Attaining English fluency typically takes five to eight years _ for students in English-immersion and Spanish-language programs _ nearly double the time most previous studies found.

Reading test scores decline by an average of two grades when students switch from native Spanish-language exams to tests in English. Smaller drops also occur in math scores when the testing language changes to English.

Spanish-speaking students learned English faster than non-Spanish speaking students whose native language was not English. But Asian students who speak English as a second language score higher on math tests than Hispanics.

Students with intermediate command of English progressed faster in year-round schools than schools on traditional calendars. But there were no advantages for students at the lowest or highest levels of fluency.

Limited English students in Spanish programs and English-immersion programs progress more rapidly in literacy than students in no program.

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