I Believed That Bilingual Education Was Best...Until The Kids Proved Me Wrong

Ivan, a second-grader, sat next to me with a children’s book of literature in his lap. Methodically, he ran his index finger along the lines of print and pronounced the words aloud almost flawlessly. Patiently, wanting to finish his assignment, he tolerated my questions designed to test his understanding of what he had read. He understood everything.

“So what?” you may think. Shouldn’t second-graders be able to read at grade level? But Ivan, the son of Mexican immigrants, had come to school not quite two years earlier, able to speak and understand only Spanish. The book he was reading and my questions were all in English.

For 30 years, I worked hard to promote bilingual education as the best way for children like Ivan to become academically successful. Two years ago, I campaigned against California’s Proposition 227, the ballot measure to eliminate bilingual education, because I believed that it was going to harm Spanish-speaking students. I was certain that students would be confused in English-only instruction and would be lost in the shuffle. I now realize I was wrong.

In June 1998, 61 percent of California voters approved 227, which requires that all students be taught “overwhelmingly” in English and that children who are not proficient in English be taught for at least one year in a structured English-immersion classroom before being assigned to a mainstream class.

Two months later, we began the school year with all classes taught in English. I was nervous, certain that it was going to be a disaster. Since then, however, I’ve watched Ivan and other recent immigrant children in my district learn to speak and read English faster than I ever thought possible. As a result, I’ve become convinced that English immersion, not traditional bilingual education, is the path to academic success for children who arrive in our classrooms unable to learn in English.

Even before 227, I had begun to question the effectiveness of traditional bilingual education, in which limited speakers of English are assigned to a class where they learn to speak, read and write in their home language first. In Oceanside, which is 35 miles north of San Diego, that language is Spanish. Until 1998, a student would remain in Spanish instruction for up to four years, even longer for some. Only after being designated fluent in English would a child’s learning in English begin in earnest.

As a former bilingual teacher, administrator, and co-founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, I had come to believe that many students remained too long in classes conducted in Spanish, and that, as a result, they lost ground in the development of their English language skills. I believe that this creates a learning gap that is seldom closed.

On my recommendation, the Oceanside School Board adopted a bilingual program reform that would have moved most students from Spanish to English within three years. But before we could implement that change, 227 was passed. At first, I resisted. I tried every way I could to find some way to preserve bilingual instruction. But I could not, I learned after consulting with the school district’s lawyers. In the end, we had no choice but to implement 227 fully and immediately. Reluctantly, I made preparations.

At the end of the first year, I was amazed by the results. State tests showed dramatic academic gains for Spanish-speaking students in reading and writing–especially in the early grades, where we had reduced class size to 20 or fewer students and implemented phonics reading instruction. Those changes seemed to have made a difference.

But Proposition 227 has been the catalyst for the dramatic changes in student achievement. Without 227, we would have been teaching these students in Spanish; they would certainly have performed poorly on the state tests, which are administered in English. And we never would have seen how quickly and how early they could learn to read English.

Consider this: Two years ago, limited-English second-graders in Oceanside scored at the 13th percentile on a scale of 100. This year, at the same grade, limited-English students scored at the 32nd percentile. A significant difference, I believe, is that these students had been taught only in English.

Skeptics claim that Oceanside’s scores are so low that they offer scant proof that English immersion works better than bilingual instruction. Oceanside, with 22,000 students in 24 schools, was the lowest-scoring school district in San Diego County for many years. But that is no longer true. The test results of Spanish-speaking students in other districts have risen as well, but at the primary level, no district has seen increases as dramatic as Oceanside’s. For the first time, more than half of our schools are at or above the national average in some categories. In reading, our second grade limited-English students’ test scores were almost 40 percentage points below the national average two years ago. Today, they are only 18 points from the national average.

Critics say that 227 is unclear in its description of how students should be taught. Not so, in my opinion. Simply stated, it requires that all students be taught in English. Parents may request a waiver that would allow them to move their children to a bilingual program. As part of their request, they must list the educational or emotional problems that English immersion would cause their children. The waiver must be approved unless the school staff thinks that it would not be in the child’s best interest. A child must spend at least one month in the immersion class before a waiver request can be considered. The district must form a bilingual class when there are 20 or more students with approved waivers at one grade level.

I grew up in Montebello, Calif., in a family where both sides are descended from Irish and Mexican immigrants. My parents, several of my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and all of my aunts and uncles were bilingual in English and Spanish. My sisters and I grew up using both languages interchangeably with our extended family. As a result, I deeply valued bilingualism. And I believed that bilingual education was the best way to achieve this, by preserving the child’s native language while teaching him English. That’s why I originally opposed 227 as misguided and drastic.

But I was wrong on two counts. First, 227 did not cause the sky to fall in. The children, for the most part, are learning quickly and well. Second, I was wrong in believing that teaching limited-English students to read first in Spanish and later, sometimes much later, in English, would deliver on our promise of academic success. In fact, I have come to believe that transitioning limited-English students to English well after their peers puts those students at an academic disadvantage when it comes to choosing the most challenging courses in high school and college.

Soon after Oceanside schools implemented English-immersion instruction, I was invited to speak with some Hispanic students at our local community college about the new approach. I was criticized and castigated by most of the students, all of whom were advocates of bilingual instruction. I explained my concern about the achievement gap that appears to develop between native English speakers and limited-English speakers who are taught to read, write and speak Spanish in school first. Two female students said little, but after the meeting adjourned they asked to speak with me privately. We found an empty classroom, and they began to question me about my “gap” theory. I made clear that this was merely my opinion and that little research had been done to support my belief.

An awkward silence followed. Finally one, then the other, spoke. Each, they explained, had come to the United States as the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, and they had been in bilingual classes in two different school districts (one in Oceanside). Both said they felt less proficient in English than their native English-speaking peers in high school and were struggling in college. They had enjoyed being taught in Spanish in public schools, but both now believed that they had paid a price for the comfort of early Spanish instruction.

They asked me if English immersion would help other students like them. I confessed that I did not know. They apologized for the behavior of their classmates, and we said our goodbyes.

That was two years ago. 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 that gap in achievement. Now I believe that using all of the resources of public education to move these students into the English-speaking mainstream early and quickly is far more important than my former romantic notions that preserving the child’s home language should be the ultimate goal of our schools.

Ken Noonan is superintendent of schools in Oceanside, Calif.

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