California has reported a stunning improvement in the scores of immigrant students no longer enrolled in bilingual programs. The success of the new English-immersion approach should help efforts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and elsewhere to end their own bilingual programs.
The beginning of the end came two years ago, when Californians passed a ballot initiative to do away with their bilingual education system. For decades, Hispanic children were being taught science, social studies and other academic subjects in Spanish. They were moved into regular classes only after reaching a certain English proficiency.
Proposition 227 ended that dual track. Students entering the school with little English would spend a year in an intensive study of English. After that, they moved into regular classes taught in English.
California found that the test scores of immigrant students given a year of English immersion and then sent to regular classes were much better than the scores of students allowed to languish in the bilingual program. The law let some students stay in bilingual programs, giving educators a way to compare the two programs.
Ken Noonan, founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, says he has undergone a sort of religious conversion on the issue. He is now school superintendent in Oceanside, a city north of San Diego. Mr. Noonan led the change from bilingual education to English immersion. On standard state test scores, the Oceanside students’ improvement was double that of children in neighboring Vista, where many youngsters stayed in the bilingual program.
Some teachers and administrators invested in bilingual programs (bilingual teachers earn more than their colleagues) will not concede defeat. They have issued the usual complaints about immersion program instructors teaching to the test.
They said other factors, such as smaller class sizes throughout California, may have affected the results. However, the difference in scores was so big that these rationales for supporting a failed program can be dismissed.
Hispanic parents should be pleased at the news. Many had complained that their children were being segregated into inferior Spanish-only classes and were not learning English fast enough. The bilingual establishment went so far in trying to keep their classrooms full that some English-speaking Hispanic children were forced into bilingual programs. But then, jobs were at stake.
The numbers coming out of California should support a ballot initiative this November to end bilingual education in Arizona. In addition to Massachusetts, there are campaigns to do the same in Colorado and New York.
The bilingual program is an example of an education fashion that morphed into a multimillion-dollar establishment. And because it involved Hispanic families, the program’s supporters could politicize any effort to change the program. They succeeded for a long time.
However, the numbers coming out of California are hard to argue with. At last, public school systems will be able to replace bilingual education with a new method that sends Hispanic students much more quickly into the mainstream of American life.