No benefit found in English-only instruction

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Feb 23 15:11:56 UTC 2006

>>From  San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, February 22, 2006

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
said. 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
future. "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

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.

E-mail Tyche Hendricks at thendricks at


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list