Which works: bilingual ed or immersion?

EDUCATION: It depends on who you talk to and which study you believe.

The language drama being played out in school districts across the nation carries more than 20 years of baggage.

Today’s bilingual education programs were ushered in after a landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision that required districts to address the needs of language minorities. The decision spawned several laws that form the framework of bilingual education, a generic term for programs that seek to teach speakers of other languages.

California has 1.2 million students who need help with English and two basic ways of teaching them. One in three are taught in their own language part of the time and moved slowly into the mainstream after about three years. The rest are taught only in English, often with special help.

Students who speak other languages are tested to determine what program is best for them. And parents are supposed to decide where to place their children.

In practice, however, a shortage of bilingual teachers means most students are still taught in English. How students are taught also depends on their school district. Some districts concentrate on native-language instruction for some of their students. Others prefer English-based programs.

Which is the best method? Depends on who you talk to and what study you believe.

Researchers at George Mason University compared students taught in their native language with students immersed in English. Over the long run, native-language instruction did a better job of preparing students for schoolwork. Native-language especially seems to help students who arrive in the United States with little prior schooling.

If the goal is to move students quickly into the mainstream, however, other studies favor English immersion: A study of New York City schools found that children exposed to English early moved into mainstream classes faster.

Hispanics who reject bilingual education are focusing only on short-term results suggested in the New York study. A well-rounded education takes a longer time and isn’t easily measured with anecdotal evidence, bilingual supporters say.

“The parents want their children to communicate in English right away,” said Estella Acosta, who coordinates bilingual programs for the Orange County Department of Education. “They don’t understand that by taking core classes in Spanish, they’re building a base to later learn better English. “

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