Tongue Untied

California's Courage in Banning Bilingual Education has Resulted in Significant Gains for Students

California’s revolution in bilingual education has not resulted in countless academic casualties among students.

Contrary to many educators’ dire predictions, a ban on bilingual education passed two years ago by California’s voters actually has sent student scores soaring. The results have been so remarkable, in fact, that some of the most avid bilingual advocates have begun to rethink their positions.

The process of slowly easing students into English, formally known as bilingual education, may sound like a humane introduction for children to a new land and a new language. But this dip-a-toe-in-the-water approach, where much of students’ academics are taught in the native tongues, often drags five, eight, even 10 years. Worse, research indicates, it ultimately leaves youngsters with limited command of both English and their academic subjects.

Familiar with these disturbing trends, California businessman Ron Unz organized and funded a massive 1998 ballot drive to eliminate bilingual education from the state. Proposition 227 passed overwhelmingly, despite vociferous opposition from teachers unions, some parent groups and even President Bill Clinton.

Two years later, test scores indicate the ban has accomplished even more for students than advocates like Unz expected. Students classified as limited in English proficiency posted significant gains in reading and math; for example, the percentage of second-graders who scored at or above the 50th percentile in reading climbed 10 points over the past two years.

Some scholars say the gains also can be attributed to California’s other education reforms – measures that include reducing class sizes and focusing more on phonics when teaching reading. Yet Ken Noonan, superintendent of a Southern California district and founder of the state’s organization of bilingual educators, is among those now persuaded that immersion in English is the best way for students to succeed in U.S. schools. In interviews with the Associated Press and the New York Times, Noonan said students learned English far more quickly than he expected, and “took off” academically.

California’s test results will become an immediate issue in Arizona, where voters will cast their ballots in November on whether to ban bilingual education. And, chances are, the question will see further debate in Congress, where federal allocations for bilingual education make this misguided educational approach lucrative for local systems.

Here’s hoping all future discussions center on actual academic research, not the inflammatory rhetoric that characterizes so many exchanges on the topic.
Only a focus on fact-based approaches will afford all U.S. children, native and immigrant alike, a full chance to learn each day.



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