BACK IN 1968, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act. It was adopted not to solve a documented problem with teaching children with limited English proficiency, but as a political means of funneling federal poverty money to the Southwest, particularly Texas.
Bilingual education programs spread across the nation in the following decade because of court decisions and state laws requiring children who spoke little or no English to be taught primarily in their native language.
Over time, many school districts across the nation and in most of California developed what is now called transitional bilingual education. The theory is that children with limited English ability should be taught mostly in their native language and gradually transitioned to all-English instruction over a period of three or so years.
It was only after bilingual programs were in place that a theory to explain the practice came about, according to the New York Times. Despite its roots in ethnic politics, bilingual education became quite popular among educators.
Until 1998, it was the norm for teaching children with limited English proficiency.
Bilingual education brought federal and state money to local school districts and increased pay for teachers with bilingual credentials, which is another reason for its popularity in the education community.
The transitional bilingual education formula appeared to be quite reasonable and certainly worthy of trying in some pilot projects.
Unfortunately, bilingual education proliferated rapidly without adequate assessment. Even worse, it has failed miserably, particularly among Latino children, who lag far behind their peers in academic achievement.
As far back as 1974 indications of problems with bilingual education arose. A major study commissioned by the U.S. Office of Education found that the Bilingual Education Act did not appear to be meeting its goals. A recent review of 72 separate studies of bilingual education by Christine Rossell and Keith Baker found no support for transitional bilingual education as a better means of improving the English-language achievement of children with limited English ability. Moreover, the researchers found no evidence that bilingual programs improved achievement in other subject areas, either.
In California, the record of bilingual education has been an abysmal failure. In 1997, the year before voters overwhelming passed Proposition 227 banning most bilingual education programs, only about 7 percent of limited-English speaking students learned enough English to advance into regular classes.
Most students in bilingual classes remained there for the first four to seven years of school, segregated from the rest of their classmates. Their failure to learn English well enough, soon enough often resulted in poor school performance, a high dropout rate from high school and an inability to do college-level work.
In fact, Latino immigrant children, who are by far the largest group of students in bilingual classes, have the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates of any immigrant group.
Children with limited English proficiency from other nations did better because quite often there were no bilingual programs for them and they were forced to attend English-speaking classes.
The failure of bilingual education programs along with the success of non-English-speaking students who were mainstreamed into regular classes got the interest of Ron Unz, a wealthy Silicon Valley software developer.
He believed it was unconscionable to allow such a failure to continue, especially with so many non-English-speaking people moving to California. He was right. Unless children learn English, they cannot pursue higher education, find decent jobs or fully participate in U.S. society.
Legislature inactive The California Legislature also realized after more than a decade of failed bilingual education that it was not working. That’s why it allowed the state’s Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act to expire in 1987. But it offered no alternative.
As a result, little changed, largely because school administrators at the state and local level continued business as usual.
Until the 1998-99 school year, most bilingual programs taught all academic subjects in a child’s native language. Students received little English instruction nor did they get much exposure to English-speaking children, even in kindergarten and first grade.
This is a time when children can readily learn enough English to feel comfortable with English-speakers of the same age.
The real shame here is that efforts to motivate school officials to improve instruction for children with limited English proficiency have failed. And the Legislature, once again, did not act in a timely manner on proposed reforms.
As happens all too often in California, failure of our elected officials or administrators to adequately address a major social problem led to use of the ballot initiative. The problem with initiatives is that they are blunt instruments not well suited for dealing with complex public policy issues.
That’s was case with Prop. 227, although it did offer more flexibility than many other initiatives.
The measure sharply reduced the use of bilingual education, where students are taught primarily in their native language. Instead, Prop. 227 requires school districts to teach children with limited English ability in special classes that are taught nearly all in English. It shortened the time most students stay in special classes, generally to one school year.
Prop. 227 has reduced the use of bilingual classes, but not eliminate them. If parents request bilingual classes and their child is 10 or older or if the child has been in a class using English for at least 30 days and educators agree learning in another language would be better, then the child could be placed in a bilingual class.
If there are 20 or more students in a given grade level who qualify for bilingual education, then the school has to provide it. If there are fewer than 20, then the school must allow the students to go to a school that has bilingual classes.
Although Unz and his supporters were outspent many times over by opponents, voters overwhelmingly passed Prop. 227 in June 1998. A similar ballot measure won by an even larger vote in Arizona and one is planned for Colorado in 2002.
The exceptions allowed by Prop. 227, along with some school districts’ reluctance to fully enforce the law, means that 20 percent to 30 percent of California’s children with limited English ability are still being taught in non-English classes. It also means 70 percent to 80 percent of such children have escaped from failing bilingual programs for the past three years.
Prop. 227 verdict So what’s the verdict on Prop. 227? Did it result in the disaster to immigrant children that so many education experts, school administrators, teachers unions, politicians and most of the media predicted? Did the naysayers’ gloomy forecasts of falling test scores, confused students, emotional problems, racism and an inability of children to master English while learning other subjects come to pass?
Or were the backers of Prop. 227, including the Times, and the voters right? Did school children with limited English proficiency learn English quickly? Did they do better in other subjects; did they fit in with the English-speaking kids?
There is now enough testing data and testimonials of teachers and school officials during the first two years under Prop. 227 to answer these questions. The unambiguous conclusion is that the demise of most traditional bilingual education has been a resounding success, particularly in lower grades.
Before examining the test scores, it should be made clear that those who tried to stain Prop. 227 with charges of racism were dead wrong. It is bilingual education that had elements of racism. It separated ethnic minorities, especially Latinos, from the rest of the students and prevented them from doing as well academically as their fellow students.
Prop. 227, on the other hand, has eliminated the wall of separation between English-speaking and non-English-speaking children and has brought them together in the classroom and on the playground.
Moreover, Prop. 227 has had a remarkable positive impact on children’s success in learning to speak and read English to do math and excel in other subjects.
Coincident with the implementation of Prop. 227 was California’s new statewide standardized STAR tests, providing a reasonably good tool to measure and compare students’ academic progress.
Statewide, all students’ test scores in reading. math, language and spelling have gone up.
Improved curriculum, smaller primary grade classes, better pay to retain teachers and academic accountability are credited with this broad success.
However, test scores for children with limited English proficiency (LEP) made far greater test score gains than the state average. Increases in scores for all California students in grades two through six from 1998 to 2000 were: 15 percent in reading, 29 percent in math, 17 percent in language, 23 percent in spelling and 21 percent overall.
For LEP students the gains were: 35 percent in reading, 43 percent in math, 32 percent in language, 44 percent in spelling and 39 percent overall. The highest gains were in the lower grades, but there also were significant gains in the higher grades.
In fact, the more instruction the students had in English, the better they did in learning the language and in other subjects as well. The students who were mainstreamed into regular English-language classes did best.
Those in structured English immersion, where most of the teaching was done in English but classes were designed for children learning the language, did next best. The lowest level of performance for LEP children was in traditional bilingual classes, where students were taught mostly in their native language.
Tale of two cities One of the most illustrative examples of the benefits of Prop. 227 can be seen in comparing the test scores of grade two through six students in the Oceanside and Vista school districts. The districts have similar demographics. Income levels are similar to each other and the state average. About one-fourth of their students are classified as limited English proficient, similar to the state average.
But there is one big difference between the two districts. Vista Unified School District has been very pro-bilingual education. It has not implemented Prop. 227 reforms and continues to teach LEP students primarily in their native language.
Oceanside Unified School District moved in the opposite direction and strictly adhered to Prop. 227 despite Superintendent Ken Noonan’s misgivings about it.
Here are the improvements in test scores for the LEP students in Oceanside who were taught in English: up 93 percent in English, 100 percent in math, 70 percent in language, 112 percent in spelling and 92 percent overall.
These are the comparative scores for LEP students in the old bilingual classes in Vista: up 14 percent in English, 44 percent in math, 16 percent in language, 13 percent in spelling and 24 percent overall.
The average increase in LEP student test sores at Oceanside was nearly four times greater than those of LEP students at Vista.
These dramatic differences should make opponents of Prop. 227 take pause. In fact, they did for Oceanside Superintendent Noonan, who is half Hispanic and a longtime believer in bilingual education.
It wasn’t just the test scores that changed Noonan’s mind. He saw first-hand how the children were learning English and other academic subjects.
“Now I am convinced that English immersion does work and that it should begin on a student’s first day of school. Now I believe that English immersion may be able to reduce or eliminate the gap in achievement” between native English speakers and limited-English-speaking children.
Oceanside first-grade teacher Chiqui Grubic is also a convert. She said, “The first couple of weeks, when they (students) don’t know any English, it can be intimidating. Some of them might cry or want to go home. But it doesn’t take them long to catch on. They’ve surprised all of us.”
Giant step The children who are now mastering English in kindergarten, first and second grade have made a giant step toward academic success in later grades.
Too often under bilingual education, students would stay in non-English classes for many years. They might do fairly well in academic subjects but did not acquire the English skills necessary for success in high school, much less college. The result is that they end their education too soon and wind up in low-paying jobs with little future.
Children who learn English when they are 5, 6 and 7 years old are likely to be comfortable in all-English classes early on and will have the language skills they need to continue their education.
The early results of schools that abandoned bilingual education strongly indicate that Prop. 227 is working as designed and should be universally used in the lower grades.
Unfortunately, there is still resistance to English immersion. Such opposition may make sense for non-English-speaking students who enter U.S. schools in higher grades, but such resistance is not constructive for younger children in kindergarten through third grade.
Amazingly, in some school districts, including Mt. Diablo and Oakland, to name a couple, LEP children in kindergarten are being taught in their native tongue, when they could become proficient in English for their age level by the end of one year, as has been the case in numerous schools throughout the state.
Fortunately, English-only education remains popular throughout the nation, which could result in successes like California’s Prop. 227 in other states.
Polls show that there is massive support for requiring all public school instruction to be conducted in English. A recent Zogby survey showed that English-only instruction is backed by 77 percent of all voters, while only 17 percent were opposed.
The numbers were similar for Democrats, Republicans, independents, whites, Latinos, Asians, blacks, men, women and union members. The range of support among these groups was from 71 percent to 81 percent.
What remains a mystery to Ron Unz and other backers of English immersion is the sparse support from political leaders for eliminating bilingual education. Unz told the Times that many politicians privately tell him they support measures like Prop. 227, but are afraid to back them publicly for fear of being labeled racist.
That attitude may be a backlash from California’s infamous anti-immigrant Prop. 187, which would have denied an education and other benefits to tens of thousands of children and was strongly opposed by Unz.
But eliminating bilingual education is hardly anti-immigrant. Just the opposite is true. Getting rid of bilingual programs gives immigrants a much greater chance to enjoy the economic and other opportunities of their adopted country.
Prop. 227 is not just for children. It provides additional funding for English education programs for adults as well.
The hope of English-only supporters is that a couple more initiative victories and continued broad popular support for ending bilingual education will gain the momentum necessary to finally dismantle a politically motivated education experiment that has failed so many children for three decades.
The sooner the better for the future of a growing number of immigrants coming to the United States.
Glennon is a member of the Times Editorial Board.