Let us begin with what’s regrettable about the victory of Proposition 227, the ballot initiative that will effectively end bilingual education in California public schools. As a general rule, statewide referenda are not the best means for making nuanced decisions about pedagogical policy. Once again, initiative- happy California voters have tied the hands of their policymakers, this time in a way that may also curtail the freedom of local school districts to respond flexibly to the challenges of teaching children with limited English skills. Among the options they might need is carefully designed bilingual education, which, in certain circumstances, may be the best way to involve some immigrant parents in the education of their kids or to meet the needs of a sudden influx of refugees. Under the new initiative, however, children with limited English will get no more than one year of what is called "sheltered English" instruction–in which they are taught mostly in English but the pace is gentler and the language used is simpler. Though the "sheltered English" method is untested as a means of moving large numbers of kids into mainstream classes, it is now the law.
Still, it might never have come to this if not for the intransigence of bilingual education’s supporters. Proposition 227, for all its flaws, was provoked by the fact that, in recent years, bilingual education had acquired one of those halos of political virtue that made criticizing it–much less reforming it–a taboo for elected officials. "Since the seventies," writes Gregory Rodriguez, a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and an acute observer of Latino politics in California, "a mixture of blind faith and administrative arrogance had not only kept bilingual education afloat but made it unassailable." More and more, Rodriguez argues, the program was debated "in cultural rather than pedagogical terms."
For opponents, the idea that children of immigrants should receive up to several years of instruction in their native language, delaying their "mainstreaming" into English classes, was a blow to the American tradition of assimilation. For supporters, meanwhile, bilingual ed had become not so much a way of improving the educational prospects of children as a way of instilling a brand of ethnic pride that bordered on nationalism. As Rodriguez puts it: "Lost in this racialized hubbub was the only question that should have mattered: Is bilingual education helping or hurting limited-English speakers in U.S. public schools?"
And, while both sides in the debate sometimes assumed that most Latinos themselves wanted bilingual education as much as their ostensible leaders did, this assumption was unfounded. Though Prop 227 was written by Ron Unz, a Republican multimillionaire from Silicon Valley, he took his inspiration from a group of Mexican-American parents, most of them garment workers in downtown Los Angeles, who had decided that bilingual teaching was holding their children back and were engineering a boycott of it. "Parents do not want their children working in sweatshops or cleaning downtown office buildings when they grow up," Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and community organizer who worked with the parents, told The Boston Globe. "They want them to get into Harvard and Stanford, and that won’t happen unless they are truly fluent and literate in English." Polls taken before Tuesday’s election indicated that anywhere between 30 and 60 percent of Latino voters in California approved of the measure. This was not the son of Proposition 187; Latino voters did not see it as another round of immigrant-bashing.
And they were right not to. After decades of research, there is no good evidence that bilingual education has been successful in meeting its original goal: helping students with limited English to master the language and to make it through school. In part, this is a function of inadequate research. Many of the relevant studies have simply been too tendentious in spirit and methodology to yield reliable results. A report released last year by the National Research Council concluded that most evaluations of bilingual education were not reliable. But, in part, it’s because, at the broadest level, the results of the bilingual experiment have not been encouraging. Bilingual ed has done nothing to reverse the strikingly high dropout rate among Hispanics (17.9 percent for those born in the U.S. and 46.2 percent for immigrants compared to 12.2 percent for blacks and 8.6 percent for whites). Hispanic students in bilingual programs are no less likely to drop out than are those in English-only programs.
Moreover, although bilingual instruction may work for students who have just arrived in the U.S. with some experience of good schooling in their native countries, it doesn’t seem to work at all for students who haven’t had decent schooling. Nor does it seem to work for those who were born in the U.S. to parents who speak Spanish at home. As Charles L. Glenn, a professor of education policy at Boston University, told The New York Times: "Someone who plays soccer will learn to play American football faster than someone who has never played a sport. But that does not make it more efficient to teach soccer first if the goal is football. We should build on academic skills if a child already has them in another language, but we should not make developing new ones in that language a priority." And, at least one well-designed recent study has confirmed what many Latino parents have apparently begun to suspect–that bilingual schooling can actually impede social mobility. Two Mexican-American economists, Mark Lopez of the University of Maryland and Marie Mora of New Mexico State University, found that first- and second- generation Latinos who went through bilingual ed earned significantly less in the job market than otherwise similar peers who got their instruction in English only.
It’s time for a fundamental rethinking of bilingual education. With any luck, parents, teachers, and local legislators in other states will learn from California’s experience and radically reform the program before somebody circulates a ballot initiative that takes the decision out of their hands altogether.