Focus of Proposition 227 was wrong, report says
February 22, 2006

By Chris Moran

Students who don't speak English have less than a 40 percent chance of becoming fluent even after 10 years in California's schools, researchers studying the effects of Proposition 227 estimated in a report released yesterday.

Voters approved Proposition 227 in 1998 to require English learners to be taught “overwhelmingly” in English for a year and then transferred to English-only classrooms. It allows parents to enroll their children in bilingual education if they visit a school and sign a waiver exempting their children from the law.

The difference in results between English-only and bilingual education instruction is “minimal or nonexistent,” the report found.

Students in bilingual education receive part of their instruction in their native language, and the primary language of 85 percent of non-English-speaking students in California is Spanish.

“We believe that 227 focused on the wrong issue. It's not about the language of instruction. It's about the quality of instruction,” said Robert Linquanti, co-author of a five-year evaluation of the initiative for the California Department of Education.

The report found the state's 1.6 million non-English-speaking students have benefited from Proposition 227 because it cast a spotlight on their underachievement. Since then, English learners have shown steady improvement on state test scores.


Proposition 227 did not occur in a vacuum. In the late 1990s and early this decade California has reduced class sizes in early grades and instituted annual testing to measure students' English fluency, while Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act that requires English learners to improve test scores as quickly as English-speaking students.

Advocates of bilingual education maintain that studies show that becoming fluent in a language takes four to seven years.

The finding released yesterday that said a student has less than a 40 percent chance of mastering English after a decade is based on a sophisticated statistical technique known as survival analysis, commonly used to study the effectiveness of treatments for disease.

Linquanti said the key to increasing the success rate for English learners is teacher training and a greater emphasis on language development in all subjects, not just English classes.

“We have to see every teacher as a teacher of language as well,” Linquanti said. That means, for example, asking students to solve problems through group discussions, emphasizing specialized vocabulary and incorporating more writing into lessons.

Math, science and social studies teachers need to rely less on lecturing – the so-called “sage-on-the-stage” method – and encourage students to write, answer open-ended questions and debate, serving more often as a “guide on the side,” Linquanti said.

Non-English-speaking students are classified as English learners until they pass tests to earn redesignation as fluent speakers. This fluency marks higher functioning than basic conversation. It signifies mastery of what's known as “academic English,” a level that allows students to read, write and speak as well as native English speakers in English-only classes.

The performance of English learners is crucial in San Diego County, where 117,000 students – nearly one in four kindergarten-through-12th-graders in local public schools – do not speak English fluently. About 9.2 percent of local English learners were redesignated fluent last school year.

Proposition 227's call for English-only instruction has been adopted to varying degrees throughout the county. Other than in foreign language courses, Oceanside no longer teaches a single student in a language other than English. San Diego city schools went from teaching 15,000 English learners at least in part in their native language in 1998 to fewer than 6,000 last year.

At the same time, state statistics indicate that an even greater percentage of students in the San Ysidro and South Bay Union school districts are in bilingual education today than when Proposition 227 was passed.

The study's authors report wide variation from district to district in the percent of students who ultimately earn redesignation. Local districts annually report the percentage of students who become fluent but do not compile 10-year rates similar to that calculated in the study.

The authors said it's difficult to make precise comparisons between bilingual education and English-only instruction because the state still doesn't have the ability to track individual students.