No matter which side you take in the bilingual education vs. immersion debate, the gains in reading and math scores by California students with limited English proficiency are remarkable. The disaster that many educators warned of when Californians voted to end bilingual education two years ago hasn’t materialized. In fact, the nearly one-million Spanish-speaking students targeted by immersion supporters are improving in reading and math at rates surpassing many other students.
The report should cause everyone concerned about education to reexamine their assumptions about how best to help non-English- speaking children out of educational ghettos.
Nonetheless, it would be shortsighted to grant all the credit to the foes of bilingual education. At the same time that the direction changed in teaching non-English-speaking students, class sizes were lowered dramatically in the earlier grades — to 20 pupils from more than 30 in some districts. In addition, the old-fashioned, sound-it- out, approach to teaching reading made a resurgence.
Fortunately, Oregon school districts never jumped on the bilingual education bandwagon the way California and some states with large immigrant populations did. Most Oregon schools with sizable groups of non-native English speakers provide some version of English as a second language classes.
The biggest deficit of the Oregon approach is our failure to measure how well students with limited English fare with the programs that are available.
Accountability is something voters and the Legislature should insist on, especially since the state sends nearly $60 million to schools each year to teach non-English-speaking students.
Sadly, the vote to end bilingual education was never just about education. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding immersion programs has carried an unmistakable ring of anti-immigrant prejudice. Unfortunately, immersion supporters who were truly interested in education frequently were tarred with the same brush.
The contradiction that was so often dismissed was the support immersion received from many non-native English speakers who wanted their children thrown head-first into the programs.
The saddest lesson, though, was taught to children whose futures were sacrificed in a battle that had more to do with politics than education.