It comes as a shocking surprise to professors at Stanford, Harvard and other elite universities, but teaching immigrant children in English actually seems to help them learn the language. For the second year in a row, immigrant children in California have improved their performance on statewide exams, now that most schools in the state have implemented English immersion programs. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, according to “the experts.”
In 1998, when California voters adopted a ballot initiative eliminating bilingual education programs and mandating English immersion instead, bilingual educators warned that immigrant children would be irreparably harmed. University of Southern California’s bilingual education guru Stephen Krashen argued that children need five to seven years of native language instruction before they are ready to tackle academic content in English. Others warned that forcing immigrant children to learn English immediately would damage their self-esteem and make them fall behind their peers in other subject areas, maybe even push them to drop out of school.
Tell that to Christian Dominguez, a 7-year-old boy in Oceanside, Calif., whose beaming picture appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. In only 9 months, Christian went from speaking not a word of English to being able to read whole books about dinosaurs – all in English. Christian was lucky to have entered public school in Oceanside shortly after he arrived from Mexico.
Unlike some California school districts that dragged their feet in implementing the new law, Oceanside school district decided to embrace the English immersion program, despite some trepidation on the part of administrators. The school district superintendent was the founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators 30 years ago, and wasn’t happy that voters were forcing his hand. Nonetheless, he immediately implemented the program in fall 1998.
Oceanside teachers began teaching entirely in English, using Spanish only if a student had trouble understanding a concept or was emotionally distressed and needed comforting or counseling. Two years later, test scores district-wide have risen dramatically. In 1998, second-grade reading scores for limited-English-proficient students were at the 12th percentile, meaning 88 percent of second-grade students nationwide read better than Oceanside’s non-English speaking children. This year, second-graders in the district scored at the 32nd percentile. And math scores improved even more dramatically, going from the 18th to the 47th percentile.
But Oceanside isn’t alone. In Santa Barbara, a somewhat more affluent school district, scores went up even higher on some tests. Reading scores for immigrant second-graders went from the 14th to the 39th percentile, math scores from the 19th to the 40th percentile, and language scores from the 13th to the 34th percentile. And in Ceres Unified School District, immigrant third-graders improved their math scores from the 15th to the 49th percentile, a remarkable achievement over a two-year period.
Meanwhile, in many school districts that refused to implement the program, scores remained stagnant or fell. In San Jose, which was exempt from the English immersion directive because of a pre-existing federal court order mandating Spanish instruction, second-grade reading and language scores among limited-English-proficient students stayed stuck below the 20th percentile between 1998 and 2000. In Santa Ana, Calif., often touted by bilingual advocates as a model bilingual program, second-grade reading and language scores went up only slightly from the 17th and 16th, respectively, to the 22nd percentile, leading school board member Rosemarie Avila to remark, “I think we are going to continue to score low until we get rid of bilingual education.”
But none of these results seem to make a dent with the bilingual education establishment. Stanford professor Kenji Hakuta, one of the most prominent proponents of bilingual education in the nation, told reporters that the scores were “meaningless” because the tests themselves were designed for native English speakers, which simple logic would suggest should make Oceanside’s, Santa Barbara’s and Ceres’ impressive gains even more compelling.
Thankfully, parents and taxpayers seem to be getting the message, even if linguistics professors are a bit slow to figure out that the best way to teach any language is to teach in that language. Arizona voters will have a chance to vote for a California-like ban on bilingual education in the fall, and Colorado voters will get their chance come 2002. Meanwhile, thousands of California students like Christian Dominguez will be making steady progress toward realizing their American Dream, thanks to their new-found command of English.
Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.