Three big myths about immersion education
Contra Costa Times
April 17,2005
By Sarah Means Lohmann, GUEST COMMENTARY

AS AMERICA'S Latino population soars, our country faces a new crisis -- high school dropouts.

Today, 15 percent of 16- to 19-year-old Latinos educated in the United States drop out of school. That's roughly twice the rate for non-Hispanic whites.

A primary trend underlying this problem is the ineffectiveness of English language education in our schools. Study after study has shown that immigrant students who are fluent in English are far more likely to graduate high school, go to college, and earn higher salaries in the workforce.

One of the best ways to improve the educational progress of Latino children is to embrace immersion programs. In states all across the country, English proficiency scores have clearly gone up in schools that have adopted immersion education.

Unfortunately, many critics of immersion continue to advocate failed programs that sequester Spanish-speaking children into separate classrooms. Resistance to immersion education is based on three myths:

 Immigrant children will be left to "sink or swim" in immersion programs.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there was a time in America when immigrant children were just thrown into classrooms with native speakers and received no formal help. But today's immersion programs are different, and are taught by instructors who are fluent in English and Spanish.

Here is how it works: Elementary school students are placed in separate classrooms for approximately one year and then integrated into regular English-speaking classes. At the junior high and high school level, students often receive two to three periods of intensive English training per day, and join mainstream classrooms for the rest of the day. Immersion programs have the explicit goal of integrating Hispanics as quickly as possible into classrooms with native English speakers.

That didn't happen with most programs that came out of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968.

Those programs were not bilingual at all, but unilingual. Spanish-speaking students were taught in Spanish for years on end in separate classrooms. Unfortunately, they were never "mainstreamed."

 Immersion education minimizes foreign students' native culture and language.

Far from forcing children to forget their own language, immersion programs use teachers who are fluent in both languages to help children adjust quickly.

The bilingual and multicultural education establishment maintains that focusing on children's native language and culture leads to higher self-esteem and ultimately better performance. But does being segregated in separate classrooms taught exclusively in Spanish help raise a child's self-esteem? Children can learn about their culture and native language from those who know their own culture the best -- their parents.

 Immersion education violates students' rights.

The National Association of Bilingual Education claims that those who try to eliminate bilingual education are performing "civil rights violations" that are "politically inspired."

Most immigrant parents desperately want their children to learn English well. Far from being discriminating, immersion gives their children the skills they will need to succeed for the rest of their lives. Without good English, it's almost impossible to move on to higher levels of education or get better-paying jobs within the wider culture.

The unfortunate effect of traditional bilingual education has been to keep "foreign" students segregated. That makes a mockery of its original intent, which was to help growing immigrant populations move ahead as rapidly as possible into the American mainstream. But however good the intentions, the program has failed. Look at California.

For 30 years, the state watched its foreign students fail in English proficiency, despite federal funding that favored classroom instruction in native languages. It has been six years since California officially abandoned its transitional bilingual program in favor of immersion, and newly released test scores show that English fluency has thrived under the new system.

In 2004, 47 percent of English learners scored in the top two proficiency categories on the California English Language Development Test. That was up from 25 percent in 2001, shortly after the state first implemented immersion programs. What's more, the state's school districts that have resisted immersion continued to drag down state averages.

Success should point the way. Policymakers should decide the future of bilingual education based on these numbers. If, after almost four decades of bilingual education, foreign students are still unable to demonstrate basic English proficiency, then flawed programs -- not flawed students -- are clearly to blame.
Lohmann is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. She can be reached at