Spanish-speaking children who are taught partly in their own language make at least as much progress in school as those “immersed” in English, according to a new U.S. study that has angered academic conservatives.

The study, which looks at bilingual classes serving 2,000 children in New York and four other states, also finds that the students improved in reading and math at rates comparable to the general school population. Results of the $ 4.4-million study were announced yesterday at a news conference held by sponsoring officials in the U.S. Education Department.

In defending the value of the nation’s $ 170-million bilingual program, the study disappoints conservatives who had hoped for evidence that English-only instruction works better. The study was launched in 1983 amid fierce national debate over the question of whether bilingual classes encouraged assimilation or growth of “cultural ghettoes.”

“They wound up with a lot of slop,” said John Ciccone, a spokesman for an advocacy group, U.S. English, who criticized the study’s research methods. That Washington-based organization has campaigned for greater use of English instruction in New York and other states. The study was conducted over a four-year period, during school years 1984-85 to 1987-88, on about 2,000 Spanish-speaking students participating in three types of programs in California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey.

Advocates of native-language instruction said yesterday that the new study should convince skeptics that such instruction helps students assimilate. “One of the misconceptions is that we’re just trying to preserve the native culture,” said Maria Valverde, president of the New York State Association for Bilingual Education. “That is a complete fallacy.”

But opponents termed the findings confusing, noting that the study itself criticized the quality of instruction found in many classes. “In some cases, depending on language, it’s almost impossible to find qualified teachers,” said Ronald Saunders, U.S. English’s executive director.

Described as the most ambitious review to date of bilingual instruction, the study looked at three types of classes: one, “immersion” in which nearly all teaching is in English; two, “early exit” which provides 30 to 60 minutes’ of daily instruction in Spanish in kindergarten, with a phase-out of that language over the next two years; and three, “late exit” which provides a minimum of 40 percent of instruction in Spanish through sixth grade.

One finding of the study, which was conducted by a California consulting firm, Aguirre International, is that students taught partly in their native Spanish actually become fluent in English at a slightly faster pace than those in immersion programs. By the end of third grade, for example, 72 percent of children in early-exit classes were found fluent in English, compared to 66.7 percent of children in immersion classes.

Students in late-exit classes became fluent more slowly, but this was to be expected given the nature of their program. The study noted, moreover, that parents of children in late-exit programs took a much more active interest in their schoolwork – presumably because the parents understood the language in which homework was assigned.

Weaknesses also were noted, such as the tendency to keep students in special classes even after they had been rated as proficient in English. Fewer than 26 percent of immersion students and even fewer early-exit students were “mainstreamed” into regular classes by the end of third grade. The study also criticized teachers for doing most of the talking, rather than giving children a chance to practice conversational skills.

On balance, though, the study found that “bilingual education benefits students,” in the words of Ted Sanders, acting secretary of education. Officials noted that even immersion programs provided special instruction for students with limited English, as opposed to simply dumping them into regular classes.

The study, circulated in draft form among educators for the past several months, is expected to have political impact in states such as New York, where more than 140,000 students speak a language other than English. While most of those students live in New York City, there are also growing numbers in the suburbs. More than 60 districts on Long Island, for example, now maintain special programs for such students.

Learning the Language

Percentage of students reclassified as fluent in English by years in various programs, starting with kindergarten Number of

Years in Immersion Early Exit Late Exit
Program % % %
1 3.9 12.6 11.8
2 21.2 25.4 12.7
3 37.9 43.8 28.0
4 66.7 72.0 50.8
5 * * 67.0
6 * * 78.6

Note: Students of limited English proficiency who left the study were dropped from the calculations while students fluent in English who left the study were retained. This tends to slightly increase the percentage of reclassified students as years in program increases.

Source: Aguirre International study



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