Immigrants are a continuing source of renewal and vitality for this country,
but they also present the challenge of integrating them into American society. No task is more immediate or urgent than educating children who come here not knowing a word of English.
For a generation, the prescription in public schools was bilingual education–which let students be taught in their native language, sometimes for several years, until they mastered the new tongue. But discontent grew,
much of it among Hispanic parents who felt their children were being poorly served.
Chicago chose to limit bilingual education to three years. Californians,
however, voted to do away with it almost entirely–and it now looks as though they were onto something.
California, with its proximity to Mexico and the Pacific Rim, has long received an outsized share of the nation’s newcomers and has more than a million Spanish-speaking students. So bilingual education loomed larger there than elsewhere. Opponents of Proposition 227, which directed that instruction be “overwhelmingly” in English, predicted serious harm to Hispanic children if they were forced to learn English rapidly.
But results of standardized test scores released last week suggest that these pupils are better off being immersed in the new language as quickly as possible. Among second-graders of limited English proficiency, reports The New York Times, average scores have risen 9 percentage points in reading and 14 points in math. Sixth-graders have also registered gains.
So positive have the results been that Ken Noonan, a founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators and now a school superintendent, told the Times, “I thought it would hurt kids. The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me. The kids began to learn–not pick up, but learn–formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would.”
It’s too early to pronounce the new policy a success. Other factors, such as smaller classes, may have contributed to the improvement. And, since school districts can grant waivers to students whose parents think they can’t handle all-English classes, it’s not clear how thorough the change has been.
Still, the news about test scores comes as a relief to those who recognized the shortcomings of bilingual education as it had been practiced in California but feared the new approach went too far in the other direction.
The old way clearly wasn’t working. California seems to have found a better one.