Bilingual education fails test, exposing deeper problem

Educators who warned of disastrous consequences from California’s ban on bilingual education today find themselves off balance: Children shifted rapidly into regular classes taught in English scored far higher on standardized tests than those allowed to spend more time learning in their native languages.

If the trend continues, as appears likely, it would suggest hundreds of thousands of children in California and elsewhere were hobbled by flawed bilingual programs.

Even more worrisome, however, is the underlying cause, one that affects far more of today’s school kids: Teachers and principals lack high-quality research telling them what works and doesn’t work in classrooms. As a result, millions of children are subjected to education guesswork instead of benefitting from proven programs.

When medical researchers want to know whether a drug works, they compare outcomes of a group taking the drug to those not taking it. But that type of experiment is rarely done in education.

Bilingual education could have been tested this way. One cluster of schools could have used traditional bilingual education techniques — which have kids straddling the two languages for several years, as California once did.

Another could have used English immersion, in which kids are taught English and quickly shifted into regular classrooms, as California does now.

That test was never done. Two years ago the National Academy of Sciences found that just one of the 33 significant studies of bilingual education was a true experiment — and it didn’t involve Spanish-speaking children. Yet California was just one of many states that plunged into bilingual education.

California was also the leader of the poorly researched “whole language” reading movement, abandoning phonics in 1987. The result: a downward spiral that leaves California vying with Mississippi for last place in national reading tests.

Sadly, this is typical of education research.

Earlier this year the National Reading Panel culled 100,000 studies on reading instruction, only to discover a mere handful met the minimum quality requirements routine in other disciplines.

And when top education experts were asked which education programs are most in need of medical-style research, the short list included many of the nation’s most common “reforms.” “Fuzzy” math, in which process counts as much as right answers; mainstreaming special education children into regular classes; eliminating the grouping of children by ability; reducing class sizes if it means hiring less competent teachers; and basing teacher rewards on credentials rather than performance. Yet schools adopted each.

Why the mess?

Education colleges employ professors lacking research backgrounds, so the educators they train can’t sort the solid from the slippery. Congress and the U.S. Department of Education don’t help. Only a fraction of the research money they hand out demands medical-style research.

Even solutions go awry. Three years ago Congress began setting aside several hundred million dollars in grants to encourage schools to adopt highly researched reform models, which number about a dozen.

Yet thanks to loose guidelines, schools so far have picked about 300 different models.

Until all this changes, parents, teachers and principals will continue to bump around the dark and children will continue to suffer the consequences.

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