Bilingual education could make a comeback

July 29, 2014
students write on worksheets in classroom

Second graders Jayden Lew and Giselle Ortega work on their Spanish grammar at Edison Elementary School in Glendale, where they are enrolled in a dual language immersion program.

After nearly two decades, bilingual education in California could stage a resurgence if the state Senate approves a bill in August that would put the issue on the ballot in November 2016.

Since the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, schools have been banned from offering classes taught in a language other than English without express permission from parents, among other requirements. The initiative, which passed with 61 percent of the vote, overhauled a system where the default assignment for English learners was a class taught in their native language.

“We were outspent on advertising 24 to 1 and we still won one of the largest landslides in California political history,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman who sponsored the ballot initiative.

Bilingual education, as it was practiced in California prior to the passage of Prop. 227, provided instruction to non-English speakers in their primary language in some or all academic subjects. Bilingual students also took classes specifically aimed at teaching them English. The goal, as they progressed, was for more and more of each class to be taught in English.

Though many felt as Unz did about bilingual education, Prop.227 remains controversial among educators. Many point to studies showing that high-quality bilingual education can help English-learner students transition to English-language classes. But even many educators believe the old bilingual system was flawed. English learners make up nearly a quarter of California’s public schoolchildren and, under the old system, they could remain in Spanish or other language classes for years without becoming fluent in English. And quality varied immensely from classroom to classroom, said Elena Fajardo, the administrator of the Language Policy and Leadership Office at the California Department of Education.

“Based on my experience, the quality of the instructor, the quality of the instruction, the program design and the adherence to that design is really where the benefits lie,” Fajardo said.

“Based on my experience, the quality of the instructor, the quality of the instruction, the program design and the adherence to that design is really where the benefits lie,” said Elena Fajardo, the administrator of the Language Policy and Leadership Office at the California Department of Education.

The new bill, SB 1174, which is currently undergoing revisions, would not be a return to the old system, said Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, the bill’s author. English-language instruction or a quick transition of one or two years to English-language instruction would remain the default for English learners. The bill would remove barriers to offering instruction in a language other than English. Since it would undo some of the provisions of Prop. 227, it would need to be placed before voters.

The resulting changes to the education code would allow schools to more easily offer either traditional bilingual programs or dual language immersion programs, which are meant to create fluency in two languages regardless of the student’s home language. Children in dual language immersion classes learn the mechanics of English and a second language as well as learning content, like math and social studies, in both languages. The vast majority of such programs currently operating in California enroll an even mix of both English learners and native English speakers. Some programs in the U.S. use primarily the non-English language to start and slowly integrate English over time. Others use each language 50 percent of the time.

Schools would not be required to offer dual language immersion programs; it would just become easier for them to do so because there would be less paperwork and fewer regulations regarding teaching in a language other than English. Practically speaking, parent support will still be required to make the programs successful even though the complex parental waiver process now in place will be removed.

“This bill is about choice,” Lara said by email. “If a parent wants their child to only receive instruction in English they absolutely have that ability under this bill. If a parent wants their child to learn to read and write in English and Spanish, this bill gives them the ability to do so as well.”

Parents already have that choice in the Glendale Unified School District, where nine schools offer dual language immersion programs in which English learners and native English speakers learn in two languages. While similar programs exist in other districts, few have as many as Glendale Unified. Glendale’s decision to offer programs in seven languages – including Korean, Armenian and Italian – is based on the success of its first Spanish-English dual immersion program at Edison Elementary School, which has been running since 2003.

Wendy Rios, the leader of Edison’s dual language program, said they have found that most of the children enrolled in the program are performing at or above grade level by the end of elementary school. The school has also received the 2014 Seal of Excellence from the California Association of Bilingual Educators, one of two schools in California to receive that honor in 2013-14 for demonstrating strong academic achievement among enrolled students, especially English learners.

Rios said the new legislation, if approved by voters, wouldn’t affect her program much, except to lessen the paperwork needed to run it.

“I’m excited that other communities could have these opportunities” if SB 1174 passes and voters approve it, Rios said. “But being thoughtful and planned is critical. I’m always hesitant for programs to grow in masses. It works if people do the research, if they visit the programs (that work). I feel (new programs) need at least a year of planning.”

Only 9 percent of the state’s 1.4 million English-learner students received part of their instruction in their primary language in 2013-14, according to the California Department of Education. The state does not have data on the number of students who received instruction in their primary language prior to the passage of Prop. 227, though Fajardo said the number of bilingual programs in the state has been slashed since then.

At the same time, and despite the red tape, the number of programs like Glendale’s, which serve native English speakers as well as English learners, has ticked up over time, according to Fajardo. The California Department of Education lists 201 dual language programs, though Pam Slater, a spokeswoman for the department, said the list had not been updated since 2011.

Unz attributed the uptick to “upper middle-class Anglo families” trying to find an advantage for their children, potentially at the expense of English learners.

“(White parents) want immigrant children to serve as unpaid tutors to their children,” Unz said.

While a growing number of English-speaking families do view dual immersion programs as advantageous for their children, research shows that learning two languages simultaneously can have long-term benefits for English learners.

“I’m excited that other communities could have these opportunities” if SB 1174 passes and voters approve it, said Wendy Rios, the leader of a dual language program in Glendale. “But being thoughtful and planned is critical. I’m always hesitant for programs to grow in masses. It works if people do the research, if they visit the programs (that work). I feel (new programs) need at least a year of planning.”

A Stanford University study of a 60,000-student district in California, which is unnamed as part of an agreement between researchers and the district, looked at 12 years of English learner data. Researchers found that many students enrolled in English immersion classes, which focus on teaching English and offer no instruction in students’ primary language, were reclassified as fluent in English before finishing elementary school, said Ilana Umansky, now an education professor at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study. That jump start didn’t help them in middle school, though, when their peers who had been enrolled in bilingual or dual immersion classes began getting reclassified and performed better on tests that measure academic proficiency.

“It makes sense, when you think about it, that students in an English-only environment would make more rapid progress in English, but students given a firm foundation in their own language would be better able to apply that language towards learning English and towards academic (pursuits),” said Umansky, who conducted the study with Professor Sean Reardon while earning her Ph.D. at Stanford.

In the district she studied, Umansky said that the families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and with less proficiency in English as kindergartners were more likely to choose bilingual or dual immersion programs for their children. Families who chose English immersion programs were often better off financially and knew more English when they started school. Nevertheless, students enrolled in programs that included instruction in their primary language throughout elementary school and often into middle school were able to demonstrate a more sophisticated command of English and stronger performances on tests measuring academic proficiency by the end of high school, Umansky said.

Though her study did not examine the reasons for the better long-term outcomes for students in bilingual programs, Umansky said other research suggests that students acquire transferable language skills and a better understanding of subjects like math and history by studying in their native language first. For example, a Spanish-speaking 6th grade student who already understands that every sentence needs a subject and a verb can transfer that knowledge to learning English. And an 8th grader who first learned about the Civil War in Spanish during elementary school would have some basis for understanding the conflict between North and South even if the subject was now being taught in English.

Lara said he agrees that the acquisition of English is critical for all California students. But the world has changed, he said, and a strong command of just one language may no longer be enough.

“Nearly every other country in the world has managed to cultivate a multilingual society and reaps the cognitive and economic benefits of doing so,” Lara said. “It’s time for California to catch up with the rest of the world and promote multilingualism.”

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