In 30 years of following education reform, I’ve never seen a story quite like this one. A year ago, California voters opted to end bilingual education
programs in their state in favor of intensive English instruction for non-English speaking students. The bilingual education lobby screamed racism, and predicted nothing but heartache and failure for the children, most of whom are Hispanic.
Now, statewide test scores are in, and low and behold, immigrant kids made solid, if modest, gains across all subject areas. So, what do state education officials have to say about the results? “It’s too early to celebrate or throw stones,” warns Delaine Easton, state superintendent of education.
Pardon me for being cynical, but does anyone doubt what the response would have been had immigrants’ scores gone down, even slightly, or remained stagnant? Instead, students with limited English proficiency improved their percentile ranking in every category, including subjects such as reading and math previously taught in the children’s native language.
In Oceanside School District, which chose to implement the new program aggressively by near-total English immersion, second-graders improved their ranking by 11 points in reading, 14 points in math and seven points in spelling. Older students in the district, who had been in traditional bilingual education programs longer, made smaller, but still impressive, gains.
The results in Oceanside were so dramatic that the assistant superintendent for the district admitted during recent testimony before a congressional subcommittee that even though he and others in the school district had initially campaigned to keep bilingual education programs, “these results are forcing us to re-evaluate our position on bilingual education.”
Most other districts in the state posted smaller, but still significant, gains for limited English-proficient students. The only exception were the handful of school districts that refused to implement the new program; they lost ground. Yet, few in the state education hierarchy have been willing to tout English immersion as a success. And politicians have been even more reluctant to embrace the success of the program.
Why the hesitance? Because admitting that English immersion works casts doubt on the near fanatical obeisance to bilingual education some educators and politicians have been paying for years. No matter what the empirical evidence demonstrates, this group chooses to believe that non-English-speaking pupils were better off being taught in their native language year after year, even if it meant they learned English more slowly – if at all.
What makes this story unique is how quick education officials and politicians are to explain away success. In every other arena of education, these same folks grab onto the slightest glimmer of improvement as if it were the Holy Grail.
A study shows Head Start programs contribute modestly to improved test scores for program participants for their first few years in school (though the gains seem to have no long-term effect), and virtually every politician and education expert calls for more funding to enable all low-income children to participate.
Another study shows small class size results in slight gains in student test scores, and everyone from the president down is committed to reducing class size as the No. 1 education priority. But when the issue is English immersion and ending bilingual education, suddenly educators and politicians turn skeptics.
Despite these doubters, a handful of reformers are taking heed of the growing evidence that English immersion works. In Denver, a Hispanic school-board member recently won her fight to increase the amount of English being used in classes for limited-English proficient students and limit bilingual education to three years. In Arizona, a group of Hispanic parents is gathering signatures to put an initiative on the ballot similar to the one passed by California voters last year. In Houston, a Hispanic school-board member has proposed changes in the city’s bilingual program that would emphasize “the ability to read, write and speak English as rapidly as possible.”
How much longer before the education establishment wakes up to the obvious? Bilingual education’s days are numbered.
Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.