Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion

To follow is an excerpt from the "Overview" section of the report on "Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion" by Kenneth Jost, December 11, 2009

Miriam Flores remembers that her daughter Miriam was doing well in her first two years in school in the border town of Nogales, Ariz.

“She knew how to read and write in Spanish,” Flores says of her daughter, now a college student. “She would even correct the teacher on accents and spelling.”

In the third grade, however, Miriam began having difficulties. Her grades went down, and she began having nightmares.

Miriam’s mother has a simple explanation for the change. In the early 1990s, Nogales provided bilingual education – teaching English learners in both their native language and English – but only through the first two grades. “It was the language,” Flores says.

Miriam’s new teacher did not speak Spanish, taught only in English and seemed uninterested in Miriam’s language difficulties, Flores says. “Miriam is a very quiet child, and I thought it was strange that the teacher would say that she talked a lot,” Flores recalls today. “Then Miriam told me, ‘I ask the other kids what the teacher is saying.’ She didn’t understand.”

Flores’ frustrations with her daughter’s schooling led her to join with other Spanish-speaking Nogales families in 1992 in filing a federal suit aimed at improving educational opportunities for non-English-speaking students in the overwhelmingly Hispanic town. The class action suit claimed the school district was failing to comply with a federal law – the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 – which requires each state to take “appropriate action” to ensure that English-language learners (ELLs) enjoy “equal participation in its instructional programs.”

Seventeen years later, the case is still in federal court. The plaintiffs won a pivotal decision in 2001 requiring Arizona to boost funding for English-language learning in Nogales and the rest of the state. In a narrowly divided decision in June, however, the Supreme Court gave state officials an opportunity to set aside the lower court ruling.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the federal district judge had failed to adequately consider changed circumstances since 2001. Among other changes, Alito cited the state’s decision to drop bilingual education in favor of so-called “sheltered English immersion” as the officially prescribed method of instruction for students with limited English proficiency.

Arizona’s voters had decisively rejected bilingual education in a 2000 ballot measure. Along with similar measures passed in California in 1998 and Massachusetts in 2002, Arizona’s Proposition 203 embodied a popular backlash against bilingual education that had grown since the 1980s. Critics of bilingual teaching viewed it as a politically correct relic of the 1960s and ‘70s that had proven academically ineffective and politically divisive.

The debate between English-only instruction and bilingual education has been fierce for decades. “People get very hot under the collar,” says Christine Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University and critic of bilingual education.

Those who support a bilingual approach, says Arizona Superintendent of Instruction Thomas Horne, “aren’t interested in teaching the kids English,” but want to maintain “a separatist nationalism that they can take advantage of.” Horne, a Republican, intervened with the state’s GOP legislative leaders to try to undo the federal court injunction.

“When I tell people that the best way to learn English is to be taught in Spanish, they think I’m joking,” says Rossell.

Supporters insist that bilingual education is the best way to ensure long-term educational achievement for English-language learners. “We have gone backwards on educating non-English speakers,” says José Ruiz-Escalante, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and president of the National Association for Bilingual Education. English-only proponents, he says, are “in such a hurry for students to speak English that we’re not paying attention to their cognitive development.”

“The important thing that students need to learn is how to think,” Ruiz-Escalante continues. “It doesn’t matter whether you learn to think in Spanish or in English. Kids will learn to speak English, but they will be limited” in their academic learning.

Out of nearly 50 million pupils in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools, about 5.1 million – more than one-tenth – are classified as having limited English proficiency. The number is growing because of increased immigration, both legal and illegal. The vast majority of English-language learners – nearly 80 percent – speak Spanish as their first language. But schools are also coping with rising numbers of students who speak a variety of other languages, almost all of which have far less similarity to English than Spanish has.

“It’s a growing challenge,” says Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association (NSBA). “We have many more children coming into our schools for whom their first language is not English. At the same time, the need to educate every child to a high level is much more important than it was even 20 years ago.”

The imperative for results stems in part from enactment early in 2002 of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s educational-accountability initiative. The act mandated annual testing of students in grades 3-8 and required that schools demonstrate “adequate yearly progress,” including closing the achievement gap for English-language learners, at the risk of financial penalties for noncompliance.

The act also withdrew the federal preference for bilingual education over English-only instruction. Even so, Latino advocacy groups that have long complained of inadequate attention to Spanish-speaking students applaud the law’s emphasis on accountability. The act “changed the debate from what kind of education and curriculum to one of how do you best educate these kids,” says Raul Gonzalez, director of legislative affairs for NCLR, formerly the National Council of La Raza. “That’s where we think the debate should be.”

The federal government has no official count on the number of English learners in each instructional method, but the most recent survey by researchers indicates that the majority – about 60 percent – are in all-English curricula. Of that number, 12 percent receive no special services at all to aid English proficiency. The remaining English learners – about 40 percent – receive some form of bilingual instruction using their native language and English. The length of time in the bilingual programs varies from as little as one year to several. And, as Stanford University education professor Claude Goldenberg notes, there is no way to know the amount of support the students receive or the quality of the instruction.

In Arizona, state policy calls for English-language learners to receive four hours a day of intensive English instruction apart from their mainstream, English-only classes. Since the so-called “pullout” policy was implemented in 2008, the rate of reclassifying students from English-language learners to English-proficient has increased, Horne says. “Students need to learn English quickly to compete,” he says.

Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and the lead attorney in the Flores case, says it is “too early to tell” whether the four-hour pullout approach will be more effective than past policies that he describes as ineffective. But Hogan alleges that the policy segregates Spanish speakers from other students and risks delaying graduation by taking class time away from academic subjects.

Hogan stresses, however, that the lawsuit is aimed at ensuring adequate funding for English-language instruction, not at imposing a specific educational method. “We proved that the state funding [for English-language instruction] was totally arbitrary,” he says.

Horne counters that the Supreme Court decision leaves funding decisions up to the state. “The district court judges are being told not to micromanage the finances of the state education system,” he says.

Voluminous, statistics-heavy studies are cited by opposing advocacy groups as evidence to support their respective positions on the bilingual versus English-only debate. But Barth says language politics, not research, often determines school districts’ choice of instructional method. “A lot of it is political,” she says. “A lot of decisions about language instruction aren’t really informed by the research about what works for children.”

Whatever approach is used, many researchers say English-language learners’ needs are not being met. In their new book, Educating English Learners for a Transformed World, former George Mason University professors Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas – who strongly advocate bilingual education – cite statistics showing a big achievement gap at the high-school level between native English speakers and students who entered school as English learners. Native English speakers have average scores on standardized tests around the 50th percentile, Collier and Thomas say, while English learners average around the 10th to 12th percentile.

Despite decades of attention and debate on the issue, “not much has happened,” says Kenji Hakuta, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education in Palo Alto, Calif. “The problems of English-language learners persist whether it’s English-only or bilingual education.”

The Issues

* Is bilingual education effective for English-language learners?
* Is “English immersion” effective for English learners?
* Should funding for English-language learning be increased?

For more information see the CQ Global Researcher report on "Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.