Bilingual or Immersion?
April 27, 2006
By Kendra Hamilton
Bilingual or Immersion?
A new group of studies is providing fresh evidence that it’s not the language of
instruction that counts, but the quality of education
By Kendra Hamilton
Eight years ago, Proposition 227 virtually eliminated bilingual education in
California’s K-12 schools. Since then, the English-only approach has made
inroads in states like Arizona and Massachusetts, where ballot initiatives have
created even more restrictive “English immersion” programs than California’s. In
Colorado, backers of a failed ballot initiative are trying again, this time with
a campaign for a constitutional amendment.
But a group of new studies is providing fresh evidence of what many researchers
have been saying all along: English immersion has more political appeal than
“We’re saying it’s not possible given the data available to definitively answer
the question ‘which is better — bilingual or immersion?’” says Dr. Amy Merickel,
co-author of “Effects of the Implementation of Proposition 227 on the Education
of English Learners K-12.” The five-year, $2.5 million study was conducted for
the state of California by the American Institutes for Research and WestEd.
“We don’t see conclusive evidence that bilingual education is superior to
English immersion, and we don’t see conclusive evidence for the reverse,”
Merickel says. “We think it’s the wrong question. It’s not the model of
instruction that matters — it’s the quality.”
Dr. Tim Shanahan, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of
Illinois-Chicago and director of its Center for Literacy, agrees.
Shanahan and a team of more than a dozen researchers from institutions across
the nation recently completed a synthesis of all the available research on
literacy, including second language literacy for the U.S. Department of
“When we looked at all the past attempts to get at this issue and analyzed their
data, essentially what we concluded was that, in fact, kids did somewhat better
if they received some amount of instruction in their home language,” Shanahan
says. “How much? It was not clear from the available data. What should it look
like? That wasn’t entirely clear either. But across the board, the impact of
some instruction in home language seemed to be beneficial.
“But one of the things that surprised me and that stood out for me was the sheer
volume of the research that was not devoted to these issues,” he adds. “If you
look at the data, most of the research is on [which] language of instruction [is
better]. That issue has so sucked up all the oxygen that all those other issues
of quality clearly are being neglected.”
Such conclusions run sharply counter to the assertions of many defenders of
English immersion. In 1997, millionaire Ron Unz began a campaign against
bilingual education, forming an advocacy organization with a simple name and
message — English for the Children.
That organization helped push Proposition 227 to a landslide victory in
California, claiming 61 percent of the vote. Two years later, citing dramatic
gains on test scores for immigrant children, the English for the Children
movement moved to Arizona, where Proposition 203 notched 63 percent of the vote.
In 2002, Massachusetts followed suit with Question 2, which was passed with 70
percent support. But in Colorado, voters rejected the English-immersion
philosophy, turning it down 55 percent to 44 percent at the polls.
But the movement began to fizzle after 2002. The offices of English for the
Children have closed, and studies have consistently been punching holes in core
tenets of the English-only argument.
First to fall were the “dramatic gains” in test scores. Proponents of
English-immersion stated emphatically that test scores for immigrant students
had shot up 40 percent between 1998 and 2000. But research teams from Stanford
University, Arizona State University and others pointed out that scores had
risen for all students during that period. They also noted that the rising test
scores were due to the fact that California had introduced a new achievement
test and not to the effects of Prop 227.
More damning was the failure of Prop 227 to hold up its central promise. English
for the Children had repeatedly claimed that results could be achieved with only
a one-year transition period for English learners.
“The one-year limit is a fantasy,” says Dr. Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus
at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “In
California and Arizona, English learners are currently gaining less than one
level per year out of five, where level five means ‘ready for the mainstream.’
“That means that a child starting with no English will take at least five years
before ‘transitioning.’ In Massachusetts, after three years of study, only half
of the English learners are eligible to be considered for regular instruction,”
Merickel’s AIR/WestEd research team noted several exemplary programs during the
course of their study. Some of the programs were bilingual, others were English
immersion and some were “dual immersion” — providing instruction in both Spanish
Prop 227 has actually been a useful tool, she says, for forcing the state to
focus much-needed attention on the non-English speaking population. Some former
foes of the proposition, she says, “have come to see it as a positive thing.”
But Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, an advocacy
coalition formed in 1998, isn’t willing to go so far.
“The truth is Prop 227 was a horrible blow for us, but if that was all that
happened to us since 1998, we could have galvanized attention, made our points”
and worked to ease the law’s most restrictive elements, she says.
But Prop 227 was the first of a wave of reform movements, each more
restrictive than its predecessor. First came a flurry of one-size-fits-all,
skill-based reading programs, crafted to meet the curricular needs specified in
“They allow no accommodation for non-native speakers, and they’re sweeping the
country,” Spiegel-Coleman says.
And then there are the harsh accountability systems mandated by No Child Left
“There are these people who have so much invested in these English-only reading
programs and accountability systems who do not want to admit that what they’re
doing is wrong for kids,” Spiegel-Coleman says.
Indeed, the stakes in these political battles over education could not be
higher. According to U.S. Census figures, the number of children living in homes
where English is not the primary language more than doubled from 1979 to 1999,
from 6 million to 14 million. California was home to more than 1.4 million
English learners — or nearly 40 percent of all such public school students in
the nation (excluding Puerto Rico).
These “language minority” students face formidable obstacles in school,
according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The dropout rate is
31 percent for language minority children who speak English, compared with 51
percent for language minority kids who do not and only 10 percent for the
“At some point,” says Shanahan, “we better get serious about immigration, about
integrating immigrants as productive, tax-paying and social security-supporting
parts of our work force. To do these things, they have to be able to do the work
that we do in the United States — that means we have to be making quality
choices to provide them with a quality education.”
But the discussion about quality has only begun, says Shanahan, noting that his
review found only 17 studies concerned with educational quality, compared with
more than 450 studies examining types of reading programs.
Meanwhile the discussion about the language of instruction — a discussion
Shanahan says is deeply political — seems never-ending.
© Copyright 2006 by DiverseEducation.com