Researchers don't agree on what really works

Conflicting Results: Some say question so emotionally charged that organizers' biases show.

Does bilingual education work?

If it’s consensus you want, you might as well ask if life begins at conception or the death penalty deters criminals.

Despite more than 20 years of research, no one can agree whether children who know little or no English are better off learning in their native language or in English.

Here’s a sampling of the research:

n In a study that looked at 14 years of data, researchers Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier found that children with limited English skills learn best using an approach called “two-way immersion,” where some students are learning English, and others are English-speakers learning the second language. Bilingual education used over several years had the second-best results, based on standardized test scores.

n In a 1996 report, researchers Christine Rossell and Keith Baker reviewed 300 studies and found only 72 had sound enough methods to be trusted. Of those, most showed that bilingual education was either worse or no better than other approaches, including English-only instruction.

n In a 1991 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, David Ram rez found it takes six years or more to learn a second language. He concluded that when limited-English speakers have some schooling in their native language, it’s easier to catch up with English-speaking students in reading, math and other subjects.

Some experts say the research can’t be trusted because both supporters and critics of bilingual education bring their own prejudices to their work.

“This field is so ideologically charged that no one is immune from ideological bias or preconceived notions,” Baker and Rossell wrote in their report.

Confused? It gets worse.

First, not all bilingual education programs are created equal. Are you talking about maintenance bilingual programs, where students keep taking some classes in their native language so they don’t forget it? Late-exit programs, where students get some instruction in their native language for several years? Or early-exit programs, where students move into English-only classes after about three years?

On top of that, anyone trying to measure the success of bilingual programs has to consider other factors. If a bilingual program isn’t working, is it simply because it’s a bad program? Or is it because the teacher has no experience, or the class is made up of poor children, who typically don’t do as well academically?

“It’s not really just the bilingual question. It’s a whole lot more,” said Liz Howard, a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

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