[EDLING:1268] SFGate: No benefit found in English-only instruction

Francis Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Thu Feb 23 00:45:24 UTC 2006

 No benefit found in English-only instruction
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Wednesday, February 22, 2006 (SF Chronicle)
No benefit found in English-only instruction
Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer

   Teaching overwhelmingly in English, as mandated by 1998's Proposition 227,
has had no impact on how English learners are faring in California, a
state-mandated study released Tuesday has found.
   The ballot measure, approved by 61 percent of the state's voters, promised
that immigrant children and others who don't speak English at home would
assimilate much faster if all their classes were taught in English.
   It fueled an emotional debate about how best to educate the state's
growing population of immigrant children. California educates one-third of
the nation's English learners.
   Using test data, the five-year, $2.5 million study found little difference
between students who were taught in English-immersion classrooms and those
enrolled in bilingual programs.
   "We've looked at the available data extensively over the past five years,
and we don't find any compelling evidence for the premise underpinning
227: that a major switch to English-immersion would be a panacea for
English learners," said Amy Merickel, co-author of the study. The study
was conducted by the American Institutes for Research and WestEd,
independent, nonpartisan research agencies, on behalf of the California
Department of Education.
   Researchers studied students' proficiency in English and in other academic
subjects in state tests conducted from 1997 through 2004.
   Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz, who bankrolled the
Proposition 227 campaign, said he considered the study worthless.
   "I think it's garbage, and it's extremely expensive garbage," he said. "If
you want to know if rocks fall upward or downward and you spend enough
money, you can find someone to say 'Sometimes they fall upward.' "
   Unz said his own analysis of state test scores for the four years after
Proposition 227 passed found that English learners in bilingual classes
did not improve at all, while those in English immersion programs tripled
their performance.
   Merickel said that because the state data provides only annual snapshots
such an assessment doesn't show whether individual students are
progressing over time. By definition, students who do well in a bilingual
program and master English, are replaced by new English learners, she
   To track the progress of individual students over time, Merickel and her
colleagues looked at longitudinal test results from the Los Angeles
Unified School District, which educates more than half the state's 1.7
million English learners.
   Coming on the heels of Proposition 187, which banned public services for
illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action
in public programs, the English-only measure brought race politics and the
national debate on immigration into the classroom.
   "We've been arguing about the wrong thing for a long time, and the needs
of California's English learners are getting lost in that debate,"
Merickel said.
   In line with the findings of several recent studies, including reports in
2004 and 2005 from the Public Policy Institute of California and the state
Legislative Analyst's Office, the researchers said that how California
educates English learners will play a significant role in the state's
   "Given that English learners are such a large, growing and vital component
of California's future, embracing the challenge of learning how to be more
successful with this large population of students is essential to our
state and national well-being," the authors wrote.
   Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, a professor of education and head of the
immigration project at New York University, said all students need much
more sophisticated skills and the higher level of language skills needed
for the job market of the future take longer to acquire.
   "The data show very, very strongly that you learn English in two ways: one
is you need good linguistic models, good teachers ...," he said. "And the
better your foundation in your first language, the better you'll do in the
second language."
   The study's authors found that English learners have done better
academically since the passage of Prop. 227. But all California students
improved in the same period, and the performance gap between English
learners and native English speakers has changed little.
   The researchers noted that Prop 227's implementation coincided with other
educational reforms -- including the federal No Child Left Behind Act, new
state standards and assessments for English learners and new state funding
for English language instruction -- making it hard to gauge which factors
contributed to student success.
   Many teachers and administrators told the researchers Prop. 227 was
useful, however, in focusing attention on how -- and how well -- English
learners are taught in California.
   The study's authors identified nine schools across the state that were
successfully educating English learners and interviewed their principals
to find out the secrets to their success. The principals said what matters
most are the quality of instruction, a school-wide commitment to teaching
English learners and careful planning and assessment -- not the language
of instruction.
   The state education department's manager for language policy, Veronica
Aguila, said the state will highlight effective practices. She also said
officials will continue ensuring that districts tell parents they can
demand that their school provide bilingual instruction, as several Bay
Area districts do.
   About 8 percent of current California students are in bilingual programs,
down from 27 percent before Proposition 227 went into effect in fall 1998.

Previous findings

   California state auditor's report, June 2005
   -- Limited monitoring holds English learners back and makes it hard to
assess performance statewide.
   -- State tests don't reveal which programs best help English learners.
   Public Policy Institute of California report, April 2005
   -- No evidence that changes under Proposition 227 boost English learners'
   -- Students in bilingual programs improve more slowly than those in
English-only programs but they also tend to be poorer and less prepared.
   California legislative analyst report, February 2004
   -- About half of English learners who start California public school in
kindergarten become proficient, but more than half of those who start
later never do.

   E-mail Tyche Hendricks at thendricks at sfchronicle.com. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2006 SF Chronicle

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