Study says English language is learned slowly

Proficiency: Limit set by Proposition 227 'wildly unrealistic,' research reveals

At a time when public officials and voters want schools to move limited-English students into regular classes in one to three years, a new study shows most students don’t learn the language that fast.

The Stanford University study found that it takes four to seven years for students to become academically proficient in English — that is to succeed on their own in regular classes. Educators say the study of more than 3,000 students in the United States and Canada merely confirms what they already knew from past research and their own experience.

“That’s consistent with what we see for our students,” said Jennifer Robles, bilingual education specialist in the Ventura Unified School District.

Russell W. Rumberger, who analyzed the Stanford study for the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute, said the results suggest that the one-year limit set by Proposition 227 is “wildly unrealistic.”

The proposition, approved by 61 percent of California voters in June 1998, requires all students be taught “overwhelmingly” in English. But it allowed parents to sign waivers placing their children in traditional bilingual classes, rather than English immersion classes. In Ventura County, 60 percent of parents in the Oxnard School District applied for the waiver.

Rumberger said the study shows that children need more time to learn English, whether they are taught in bilingual classes or with English programs.

“A much more sensible policy would be one that sets aside the entire spectrum of the elementary grades as the realistic range within which English acquisition is accomplished,” he said.

Stanford education Professor Kenji Hakuta, the study’s primary author, said it’s important to continually address the issue because of public debate over how these students should be taught.

Not only does Proposition 227 call for a quick transition, but Congress is considering cutting off federal funding for limited-English programs that fail to move at least 51 percent of their students into regular programs within three years.

He argued against setting time limits at a time when California students must meet increasing standards to be promoted and graduated. “You’re going to be taking away assistance from students who need the help the most,” he said.

The House last fall approved a bill calling for that limit as part of the $296 million program, and it is pending before the Senate. If classes do not reach the three-year goal, the government would provide funding and technical assistance for one more year to help them reach the mark.

Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis said no local school districts depend on the federal money to run their programs for the 27,000 limited-English students in Ventura County. Districts compete for the grant money and can use it for anything from teacher training to hiring instructional aides to buying materials.

He called the three-year limit “a great idea.”

“I think we need to get more evaluation-based incentives in our funding programs,” Weis said. “I think it’s rational to think the vast majority of limited-English students will be able to move into mainstream classes within three to five years.”

Denis O’Leary, president of the county chapter of the California Association for Bilingual Education, concurred but said there will always be exceptions. Students who migrate frequently or who move back and forth to Mexico may need more time, he said.

Weis said that even if students are not fully proficient, they could make it in regular classes with supplementary help.

“We want to get students out of segregated settings as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s not that you drop the program.”

The Fillmore Unified School District hopes to move most children into regular classes in less than three years. The district has placed all its limited-English children in immersion programs, dropping bilingual education classes in which students learn their subjects in Spanish while gaining knowledge of English.

Assistant Superintendent Jane Kampbell said most of the children who started as kindergartners last year should make the move at the end of this year. Classroom teachers are being trained to help them develop more English in regular classes, she said.

“Students are second language learners for a long time and you have to adjust your instruction so they can be successful,” she said. “We don’t disregard that information by a long shot.”

Stephanie Purdy, who manages the Oxnard School District programs for limited-English students, prefers to postpone the move until a child can read and write on grade level.

“It’s not going to happen in three years,” she said.

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