Opinions Vary on Studies That Back Bilingual Classes

Amid debate over bilingual education comes supportive research from L.A. Unified and Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. But with critics calling research seriously flawed . . .

As the debate over bilingual education bounds toward a spring ballot initiative, two studies scheduled to be released today land on the side of teaching children in their native language first, then gradually switching to English.

However, critics of bilingual education and even some supporters raised questions about the studies.

One, by the Los Angeles Unified School District, focuses on students who remained at the same elementary school from first through fifth grade–a stability that is unusual in the state’s largest school system. When the 4,200 students were given standardized English tests in fifth grade, those who had come through the native language bilingual program fared better than those who had been enrolled only in tailored English classes known as English Language Development.

The other study, by the Claremont Colleges-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, registered a similar gap based on a survey of 11 previous studies of bilingual programs across the country.

Political scientist Harry Pachon, the institute’s director, said the findings shift the onus of proof to supporters of June’s anti-bilingual initiative, English for the Children, which would replace bilingual education with just one year of English immersion.

“It’s up to them to prove that bilingual education isn’t working,” Pachon said. “If aspirin reduces a headache and we have data to prove it, why remove aspirin as an option?”

But supporters of Proposition 227 described the research as heavily flawed–noting that of the 11 studies covered by the institute’s survey, nine are more than 17 years old, and alleging that L.A. Unified could not see beyond its vested interest in the status quo.

Ron Unz, the initiative’s author, said he was particularly disturbed Their study makes our point; we can thank them for their study. They have described the problem in the LAUSD.”

Times’ coverage of Alice Callaghan’s protest caught Unz’s eye, leading him to propose the initiative. It would essentially wipe out both types of L.A. Unified programs in favor of full English immersion, except where parents attain waivers from school boards. What the L.A. Unified study shows, Callaghan said, is that all limited-English-speaking children are failing, “which is exactly why we’re proposing something different.” Ross countered that Unz’s proposal is completely untested.

Data on what works best in acquiring language is plentiful, but also contradictory. Many studies indicate that students taught in their native language first need between five and seven years to transition to English, but perform better by the time they reach high school. Others have cited a negligible difference among the various programs, suggesting that public school districts might be smart to err on the side of quicker English immersion programs.

Of the battling research, the Tomas Rivera report concluded: “Both sides have claimed that scholarly research supports their respective positions. Their reading of the literature, however, is often selective, exaggerated and distorted.”

The institute, on the other hand, claims that its assessment is “unsentimental,” because it gathered a range of studies from many different camps and included only those that met stringent criteria.

Yet even the institute reaffirms the most common finding of such reviews: “The vast majority of evaluations of bilingual programs are so methodologically flawed in their design that their results offer more noise than signal.”

That problem, the report concludes, makes it difficult to address one of the most pressing questions about bilingual education: How long should students be enrolled in such programs and what is the ideal ratio of native language versus English instruction? Government professor Jay Greene, who produced the Rivera study, said he was surprised by its conclusions because of his own mixed feelings about bilingual education.

“I was skeptical,” said Greene, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He added that in the end the greater problem is the low quality of education in large U.S. cities.

“I think it’s probably true that quality of instruction matters much more than the language of instruction,” he said. “But if we want to move toward higher quality instruction, it won’t help to eliminate [the native language] option and in fact it’s much more likely to hurt.”

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Performance Comparison

The Los Angeles Unified School District compared test scores of students who had remained at the same elementary school for at least five years. The study found that Spanish-speaking students enrolled in bilingual programs outdid those who had taken the more English-intensive English Language Development Program. But both groups fell below the district’s median percentile.

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