It's too soon to gauge bilingual ban's effects

Contrary to the warnings of many educators, the sky did not fall on Spanish-speaking students after Californians voted to end bilingual education in 1998.

According to recently released standardized test scores, Spanish-speaking students – who attended classes taught primarily in English – showed improvements in mathematics, reading and other subjects. For example, second-graders with limited English improved their reading scores by 9 percentage points over the last two years. In mathematics, the improvement was even greater – 14 points over the same time period.

For school districts in Washington, the possible lessons from the results may vary from district to district. The results – and followup analysis – could be very important to districts such as the Pasco School District, which makes extensive use of Spanish- and Russian-language instruction.

In the Tacoma Public Schools, however, what happened in California probably wouldn’t have much effect because Tacoma schools use the English as a Second Language approach. Immigrant students in Tacoma already take classes taught in English – with substantial help from tutors.

Although the levels of improvement are impressive, conclusions aren’t warranted at this point because other factors – such as reduced class size – may have played a role in improved test scores. It’s also important to grasp what educators and social scientists have known for years – that young children have a much easier time learning a new language than teenagers. That means English-language instruction could be very effective for students at the second- grade level – with its simpler concepts – and much less so for seniors studying literary theory.

Unfortunately, such nuances have often been lost because bilingual education has become a lightning rod for a volatile political issue – dramatically changing racial demographics in California and elsewhere fueled by immigration. Also lost in the debate over bilingual education is the question that should really matter most: What is the best way to educate the children of recent immigrants?

If examined without political agendas, the results in California could provide part of the answer to this significant and challenging educational question.

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