Florida can learn from the experience in California, where most Hispanic students are showing improvement in the absence of bilingual education.

Two years after California ended bilingual education in its public schools, students from Spanish-speaking families are scoring higher on math and reading tests. The results, however preliminary, are dramatic, and they could reshape the debate over bilingual education in ways that work for conservatives and liberals, alike.

Of course, as with all other standardized tests, the scores lend themselves to generalities and political spin. Still, what’s significant is that English comprehension has improved, not worsened, among Spanish-speaking students. Immigrants and their children are not falling further behind. Many educators, politicians and civil rights groups feared the opposite when California voters approved a sink-or-swim approach to English in 1998.

The average score for reading increased 9 points among second-graders classified as limited in English proficiency. The average score in math for those same students increased by 14 points. The results varied among students of different ages and among school districts – and here is where California’s experience might recast the fight over bilingual education in other states.

The results debunk the wisdom of a one-size-fits-all approach. Predictably, younger students seem more adept at English-language instruction. Lower class sizes, increased state spending and other investments California made also are credited with boosting comprehension. As in other states, California also did a good job tailoring bilingual programs to students who needed individual help the most.

Flexibility, quality teaching and monitoring of student and family development are key. The challenge of English-only, while pushed by some xenophobes as a political agenda, honed the mission of bilingual education. Many have embraced the “dual language” method, which encourages proficiency in both native and adopted tongues. And schools are reassessing the assumption that students need six or more years of bilingual education before moving into mainstream classes. In some cases, a regimen of English and enrollment in dropout prevention appears to be more effective.

So what can California teach other states, where anti-bilingual education measures are gathering steam? In the short term, the higher test scores may validate the claims of English-only proponents in the minds of many voters. Yet the growing ranks of Hispanics and other ethnic groups in the nation’s public schools require that bilingual programs be improved, not eliminated altogether.

Certainly, test scores will have to be assessed over time before the experience in California can be fully judged. Success appears to hinge on local control. In Florida, a federal consent decree requires schools to provide “appropriate” bilingual education; the districts use varying means to achieve that goal. Flexible curricula make sense. Two percent of Pinellas students have a limited grasp of English, but that figure jumps to 12 percent in Hillsborough and 21 percent in Dade. California hasn’t resolved the debate, but the experience there is illuminating. Meanwhile, test scores are moving in the right direction.

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