Follow the evidence on English immersion
By Scot Lehigh, 11/1/2002
ALWAYS A SLY political wit, Bill Clinton was in fine form when he came to the
Boston Teachers Union Hall on Oct. 10.
As he rallied the crowd to the Democratic cause, Clinton turned puckishly
Skewering the GOP for decisions driven by ideology, the former president
deadpanned: ''We govern by evidence. You have to look at the evidence.'' That
was as deliciously impish as anything I'd encountered since the day back in 1997
when House Speaker Tom Finneran presented a departing Bill Weld with a farewell
bottle of vintage Dom Perignon, only to have Weld quip, ''I'm not a drinking
Then, as I chuckled alone at Clinton's joke, it slowly dawned on me that he
actually meant to be taken seriously. And, further, that the faithful nodding
their head in solemn agreement seemed to believe it as well.
Never mind the implacable opposition of the teachers unions to the MCAS despite
clear evidence that the standards movement has improved public education in
Massachusetts. Or their unrelenting hostility to charter schools despite the
impressive performance of those innovative academies.
Still, let's pretend for a moment that Clinton's claim actually was the
Democratic ideal. What, then, would Democrats be saying this year about Question
2, the ballot initiative that proposes replacing bilingual education with
They certainly wouldn't be trying to sow fears that Question 2 will mean an
explosion of lawsuits against teachers if they utter a sentence or two of
Spanish in the classroom. In fact, the initiative allows for such legal action
only if teachers
willfully and repeatedly subvert its English immersion intent. And they'd know
that in California, where a similar initiative passed in 1998, there have been
no such lawsuits against teachers.
They might read the lengthy report that nationally noted expert Christine
Rossell, professor of political science at Boston University, and Keith Baker, a
social science researcher, did of the statistically valid analyses of bilingual
Their detailed look found that the evidence doesn't support the idea that
traditional bilingual education is a superior method of instruction. Rather, it
suggests that structured immersion is just as effective for teaching language,
somewhat more effective for math, and clearly better for reading.
They might look at scores from California, where tests show students in English
immersion programs are outperforming those still in bilingual education at
virtually every grade level.
And if they are simply too impatient to wade through the careful language of
social policy research or to crunch the test score data? Well, they might talk
to Ken Noonan, superintendent of Oceanside, Calif., where 6,000 of the 22,000
students need English language help each year.
Noonan is founding president of the California Association for Bilingual
Education and was an ardent foe of the 1998 California ballot question that
started the English immersion movement. When it passed, he and his teachers set
out trepidatiously on the new course. But four months into the new approach,
former bilingual teachers started calling to tell Noonan how impressively their
students were doing in immersion classes.
''By the end of the year, I was amazed at how well the kids were doing, and when
the test scores came out at the end of the year, I was shocked that they were so
good,'' he said.
After two years, second-grade reading scores for English learners went from the
13th percentile to the 32 d percentile, a huge jump. Math scores were even
better. The gains were smaller, but still significant, in higher grades.
So what does Noonan, once a confirmed believer in bilingual education, say now?
''I have actually become a convert to English immersion,'' he says. ''It works
better, it is easier on kids, and it gets them into the mainstream faster.''
Ideologically blinkered bilingual advocates will no doubt call Noonan a turncoat
But here's what the Oceanside superintendent actually is: Someone who looked
beyond ideology to consider the actual evidence. That is, someone who has done
exactly what Clinton has urged Massachusetts Democrats to do. If Democrats
were truly to follow either Noonan's example or Clinton's advice, they'd troop
to the polls and vote yes on Question 2.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 11/1/2002.© Copyright 2002
Globe Newspaper Company.