Emerging Evidence: If You Teach Them They Will Learn

When Proposition 227, essentially banning bilingual education, passed in California two years ago, opponents argued strenuously that it would harm Latino and immigrant students in California, particularly disadvantaged ones. Their arguments for preserving the bilingual status quo in California ranged from academic to cultural, but were unified by a dire forecast of the results if 227 became law and students with limited English proficiency were forced to learn English rapidly rather than over the course of many years through traditional bilingual education programs.

Flash forward two years to last week when the second set of statewide academic test scores since enactment of 227 were released and it is hard not to conclude that the proponents of the initiative, notably Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, were right. Rather than an educational debacle, scores in California are rising fast, particularly for disadvantaged students.

Analyzing these results in a front page story in the August 20 New York Times, Jacques Steinberg writes, “Many educators had predicted catastrophe if bilingual classes were dismantled in this state, which is home to one of every 10 of the nation’s public school children, many of them native Spanish speakers. But the prophecies have not materialized.” Mean scores in grades 2-6 were up across all subjects an average of 39 percent and scores in school districts with the most fidelity to Prop. 227 have seen the greatest increases. As a point of comparison, a recent analysis of class size reduction in California found that it had resulted in mean score increases of 2 percent to 3 percent annually.

Bilingual education is a catch-all term encompassing a number of pedagogical strategies, but the crux is a teaching approach that maintains a student’s native language while teaching them a second language. Prop. 227 essentially banned this approach in favor of teaching students English intensively and then teaching other subjects in English.

These results don’t mean that all is well in California by a long shot with regard to language instruction. Too many students still don’t get the quality of instruction they need — and even the increased test scores are still a far cry from where they need to be. If we are to ensure opportunity for language minority students, policymakers need to invest more in supporting these students, set clear goals for English acquisition, and allow states and localities to determine the best course of action. This approach is codified in the New Democratic “Three R’s” education bill sponsored by Senators Lieberman, Bayh, and Landrieu that would triple the federal investment to help limited English proficient students learn English but would leave pedagogical decisions to states and localities. The emerging evidence also strongly supports our contention that because of implementation issues — including a highly mobile student population and a scarcity of well trained teachers — bilingual education is impractical for many school districts and is far from the only or most effective way to ensure that students with limited English proficiency learn English. Obviously, it goes without saying that fluency in English is a basic, “coin of the realm” of our society and a cornerstone for opportunity. And, apparently, when it comes to learning English, if you teach them, they will learn.

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