The Bilingual Debate: English Immersion

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 29 18:24:07 UTC 2008

The Bilingual Debate: English Immersion
By Lance T. Izumi

In this installment of Education Watch, Bruce Fuller and Lance T.
Izumi discuss the candidates' positions on bilingual education. Go to
Mr. Fuller's post.
Lance T. Izumi, a senior fellow in California studies and the senior
director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for
Public Policy, is the co-author of the book "Not as Good as You Think:
Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice." (Full biography.)

Making effective appeals to Hispanic voters is a tricky business.
Barack Obama's education proposals are a case in point. Mr. Obama's
campaign notes that, "African-American and Latino students are
significantly less likely to graduate than white students," which is
true. To combat such achievement gaps, Mr. Obama's education plan
specifically advocates, among other things, "transitional bilingual
education" for English-learners. Yet, the question for Mr. Obama is
whether his commitment to bilingual education, which emphasizes
classroom instruction in languages other than English, overrides his
interest in closing achievement gaps.

Take, for example, Sixth Street Prep, a charter elementary school in
eastern Los Angeles County. The school's students are overwhelmingly
Hispanic and low income. More than a third of the students, many of
whom are recent arrivals, are learning English. Yet, among fourth
graders, an astounding 100 percent of the students tested at the
proficient level on the 2008 state math exam. A nearly equally amazing
93 percent of fourth graders tested proficient on the state
English-language-arts exam. This incredible success was achieved using
a different ingredient than the one favored by Mr. Obama.

Sixth Street emphasizes review and practice, constant assessment of
skills and a no-excuses attitude. Furthermore, and here's where Mr.
Obama should take note, according to Linda Mikels, Sixth Street's
principal, the school's instructional approach for English learners is
"full immersion." English immersion emphasizes the near-exclusive use
of English in content instruction. Ms. Mikels, who opposes bilingual
education, told me, "we've had tremendous success with having a
student who is brand new from Mexico and you would walk into a
classroom 12 months later and you wouldn't be able to pick out which
one he was." "It's working," she observed, "it's working for us."

Would Mr. Obama hold up a school like Sixth Street Prep as one model
for replication by other schools with large Hispanic and
English-learner populations? The school's achievement results should
make the answer to that question a no-brainer, but the education
politics within his own party (the National Education Associations has
been a long-time supporter of bilingual education) and his own
consistent support for bilingual education obscure predicting Mr.
Obama's response.

While he agrees that immigrants should learn English, Mr. Obama
recently trivialized the issue when he said that people should stop
worrying about "English-only" legislation. Instead, he said, "you need
to make sure your child can speak Spanish."
If Mr. Obama truly wishes to close achievement gaps, he should
carefully consider education models that work rather than scorn or
trivialize them.

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