Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/300/metro/California_bilingual_reform_has_pros_cons+.shtml
California bilingual reform has pros, cons
By Anand Vaishnav, Boston Globe Staff, 10/27/2001
One in a series of occasional articles taking a closer look at bilingual
education and Question 2.
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - Four years after the nation's most populous state replaced
bilingual education with all-English
classes, children new to California are hearing, speaking, and reading more
English than under bilingual education,
educators and researchers say.
Although Proposition 227 didn't entirely dismantle bilingual education classes
in California, it pushed students used
to learning in their native languages into schools with nearly all classroom
instruction, books, and posters in English.
By and large, teachers say the widely predicted educational catastrophe of
students with poor English skills sitting in
constant befuddlement has not occurred. Even bilingual directors admit their
schools needed to teach English faster
because of California's state test - an argument resonating with some in
Massachusetts as voters confront a similar
ballot measure Nov. 5.
But is the path to faster English leading to better English? In an immersion
program, students are given only a
minimal amount of instruction in their native language - and ideally for only a
Many California teachers interviewed fear their students are not grasping,
comprehending, and properly writing
English any quicker than in traditional bilingual courses that eased them into
the language. Researchers also have
found that students typically need more than a year to be classified as ''fluent
in English.'' Parents can request waivers
for their children to stay in bilingual classes.
So as Massachusetts voters face Question 2 to replace bilingual education with
an English immersion program similar
to the one in California, conclusions about the effectiveness of California's
experiment seem foggy. Robert Linquanti,
a researcher codirecting a five-year evaluation of Proposition 227 for the
California Legislature, found it difficult to
separate the effects of immersion from other education movements in California,
such as class-size reductions or
tough accountability rules.
''We are seeing gains among all kids over time, but the gap still persists
between English-language learners and
native-speaking kids. It's closing very, very modestly ...,'' said Linquanti, a
senior research associate at WestEd, a
nonprofit agency working with the nonprofit American Institutes for Research.
''School administrators and teachers
report mixed effects of 227. So I don't think there's a definitive answer that
can be given on, `Is Prop 227 working or is
it not working?'''
But in Massachusetts, Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney has pointed
to California as an example of
immersion's success. Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz - who financed
Proposition 227 and a similar measure in
Arizona - is bankrolling Question 2 in the Bay State and a twin initiative in
Colorado this fall.
Unz's opponents in Massachusetts have castigated Romney for touting what they
call misleading statistics on
immersion in California. But Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the campaign
has examined research from
California and determined that immersion is superior.
Prop 227 and Question 2 are almost the same, except it would be more difficult
to obtain a waiver to stay in bilingual
education under Question 2.
''What we saw convinced us that English immersion would work here in
Massachusetts,'' Fehrnstrom said. ''What we
know for sure is the bilingual education system here does not work.''
Linquanti has just finished two years of his five-year effort, and results so
far show that test scores don't favor immersion
over bilingual education. He and others say the one-year immersion target is a
myth, with most students still taking
several years to become fluent in English - a timeline no different from
traditional bilingual education.
Linquanti's 179-page report compared bilingual students' score gains in the
Stanford 9 test in 4,700 elementary
schools that reduced bilingual programs, kept them, and never had them. The
scores of students who had limited
English skills rose at similar rates for all three categories, with no clear
pattern favoring either bilingual education or
immersion. (Schools that never had bilingual classes did better, but researchers
chalked that up to better
demographics and fewer limited-English students.)
But Boston University political science professor Christine H. Rossell,
cochairman of Unz's Massachusetts campaign,
reached a different conclusion for Proposition 227 when she looked at the
Stanford 9 test scores in a slightly different
way. Schools that maintained sizable bilingual programs didn't gain as much in
reading and math as those that went
to immersion, her study found. The analysis did not control for pre-Proposition
227 scores or students' poverty rates,
which would have produced greater gains, Rossell said.
Rossell backed immersion but found it is no silver bullet. ''Proposition 227 may
have a positive effect on the academic
achievement of English Learners, but it is not going to turn them into
high-scoring students,'' she wrote in her
200-page study. ''This is because bilingual education may be the least-effective
way of teaching English Learners, but
it was not the primary cause of their low achievement.''
Although researchers argue about what works best, one thing is clear: Immersion
has not been smooth sailing in
California. Studies found that many districts weren't prepared and were confused
about how much native language to
use. Some teachers say they now must repeat lessons and slow down.
English immediately flooded California classrooms after Proposition 227 was
approved in 1998. Spanish textbooks
got shelved, schoolwork began appearing only in English, and the number of
students in bilingual classes plummeted
from 410,000 to 167,000.
However, because parents can opt to have their child in bilingual education,
programs continue in places such as the
19,500-student Pajaro Valley Unified School District, a mostly Latino school
system 90 miles south of San Francisco.
But even there, after Proposition 227 cut the number of students in bilingual
programs from 12,000 to 4,000, students
got heavier doses of English.
''We were not monitoring English proficiency as closely as we needed to, and
because of 227, we had to, absolutely,''
said Sylvia Mendez, principal of H.A. Hyde Elementary School.
Pajaro Valley and its neighbors in Santa Cruz County show why drawing broad
conclusions from immersion in
California's 1,048 school districts is tricky. Sprawling between the mountains
and the Pacific, schools in Santa Cruz
enroll the children of both Silicon Valley engineers and migrant workers in the
lettuce, artichoke, and strawberry fields
dotting this scenic slice of Northern California.
As researchers found, what immersion classrooms look like depends much on the
school, or even the teacher.
Of Ruth Smith's 22 students at Del Mar Elementary School in Santa Cruz, about
half are limited-English speakers.
Every day, they enter the nurturing clutter of second grade: crayon-colored
artwork, blocks, a puppet stand. The only
hints of Spanish are a poster with months of the year in both languages and
labels of students' names like Joaquin,
Roberto, and Guadalupe, a child who arrived from Mexico in June and illustrates
the immersion challenge.
One recent morning, Smith taught counting by fives. (If one pumpkin symbol
stands for five pumpkins, how many
pumpkin symbols represent 15 pumpkins?) She asked Guadalupe a question in
English, and the child answered
Yet when Smith handed out a worksheet for the same activity, Guadalupe got no
further than her name. She could
not read the word problems. Eyeing the girl's blank worksheet, Smith switched to
Spanish for a quick explanation,
asking her about how many students each little stick figure stood for.
''Cinco?'' Guadalupe asked.
Yes, Smith replied, and counted loudly on her fingers. ''Five. Ten. Fifteen.
''She didn't know counting in fives in Spanish,'' Smith said later. ''So not
only does she have to learn the concept, she
has to learn it in English. It's hard for me to work on concept development as
well as language. That's where having a
bilingual class is supportive for kids.''
Yet Smith finds some benefits in English immersion. She has become much more
hands-on so students like
Guadalupe can see and feel concepts to learn. And after Proposition 227 was
approved, her school installed such
supports as reading nights in both English and Spanish.
Del Mar met its annual test-score goal set by the California Department of
Education, and Del Mar principal Donna E.
Kiernan voices qualified support for English immersion. ''If done well, if
teachers receive a lot of support and students
receive support, it can work,'' she said.
Yet some school districts say immersion has made little difference, even with
help that one educator dubbed
''immersion with floaties.''
Schools in Santa Cruz, a seaside community known for its surfing traditions and
its liberal politics, want 80 percent of
their limited-English speakers to gain one level of fluency every year, as
measured by a state test. Last year under
immersion, 78 percent of students met that target, said Gene Bush, who heads
bilingual programs in the
Similar statistics didn't exist before Proposition 227, but anecdotal evidence
and the district's own assessments suggest
similar gains under bilingual education, Bush said.
Santa Cruz used to have 14 schools with bilingual programs. It now has one: Bay
View Elementary, which kept
bilingual education alive in lower grades. The school found students who exited
its bilingual programs scored almost
as high as English speakers on the Stanford 9 test, one of California's
statewide exams. Bay View also gives
immersion students extra help in reading.
''What we really noticed is that you couldn't just magically snap your fingers
and say, `OK, now you're going to
transition into English,''' principal Dan Cavanaugh said. ''Our goal is for
every one of our children to read in English at
grade level so they're competitive, comparative students. Teaching and
instructing in their primary language is a tool
to get there.''
Across town at Branciforte Elementary School, which has a higher percentage of
minority students than Bay View,
principal Mary Ann James heard no clamoring from parents to keep bilingual
education. But like Bay View, the school
found it couldn't make the switch without ''scaffolding'' to help bilingual
students. Teachers recorded cassette tapes of
useful English words so Spanish-speaking parents could help with homework,
something they could no longer do with
all classroom activity in English.
James notes that Branciforte's 330 students are more willing to speak English
and benefit from joining mainstream
classes immediately. But she is not satisfied with the school's low Stanford 9
scores, and teachers remain concerned.
''They're learning a lot of vocabulary, but are they getting the concepts?''
asked fourth-grade teacher Barbara Novelli.
''There are huge gaps in writing between Spanish-speakers and
That worry is shared even by teachers who like immersion. Reducing bilingual
education in California may have
hastened the teaching of English, but how much of it has really sunk in remains
a mixed picture, they say.
''For 70 percent of kids, I say, wow, this is the right thing for them,'' said
Branciforte second-grade teacher Lauren
Stashak. ''For the other 30 percent of them, I say, wow, they could have used
kindergarten in Spanish.''
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/27/2001.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.