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Tongue Tied

Bilingual Education in the Nation of Immigrants

Next voting season, bilingual education in the state of Massachusetts may radically change. Ron Unz, who successfully campaigned to replace bilingual classrooms with English immersion programs in California and Arizona, has garnered enough signatures to land a similar initiative on the upcoming Massachusetts ballot.

Unz (photo by Joshua Lavine ©2001)

Nearly one-fifth of the schoolchildren in Massachusetts are considered Limited English Proficient (LEP), and they speak almost seventy different languages. Under current state law, when over twenty Limited English Proficient students in a district speak the same language, schools must offer instruction in their native language. These students remain in bilingual classrooms for up to three years. All other LEP students take English-as-a-second-language classes.

Unz debated the issue with language acquisition expert Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow last October at an Askwith Education Forum entitled "Bilingual Education: A Necessary Help or a Failed Hindrance?"

Excerpts from the Forum Unz: I come from an immigrant background myself in that my mother, who was born in Los Angeles, grew up not speaking a word of English. When she was about four or five years old, she learned English very quickly and easily.

In 1996, I researched the issue of bilingual education and found some horrifying statistics. Official data from California showed that a quarter of all the children in California public schools didn't know English—about 1.5 million students. And of those students, only five or six percent learned English every year. Now, any program that has a 95 percent annual failure rate is a program that needs to change.

So I organized an effort to put a measure on the ballot that would shift the state of California away from so-called bilingual education programs towards a simple and effective system of intensive English immersion. The students would take intensive English instruction for one year, and then, once they'd learned English, they would be moved into regular classrooms. It made a lot of sense to me, and it also made a lot of sense to the voters of California. We won in one of the biggest landslides of any contested initiative campaign in the history of California.

Catherine Snow (photo by Joshua Lavine ©2001)

Snow: The quality of educational programs counts. There is no design for one-year immersion in California. The resources available to support teachers trying to implement one-year immersion are far worse than the resources available to teachers implementing bilingual education. So poor quality is almost inevitable.

It is true that a child can learn quite a bit of English in a year. Maybe 1,500 vocabulary items. That would be a very good outcome at the end of one year of intensive immersion, but it puts these children several thousand words behind monolingual English speakers.

We know from studies that if children in first grade have vocabularies smaller than 5,000 words or 6,000 words, they're very likely to have trouble learning how to read. That is the situation of children who've only had one year of not very high-quality intensive immersion.

Unz: In the state of California, what was seen over the last few years is perhaps the most dramatic recorded single rise in academic performance by a large group of immigrant students almost anywhere in the country. In less than two years after the implementation of the new initiative, the average mean percentile test scores of more than a million immigrant students went up by 40 percent. And this last year, the test scores of California's immigrant students again rose more than twice as quickly as the test scores of the nonimmigrant students.

In about a year's time, the people of Massachusetts will have a chance to junk this failed theory of bilingual education, which has never worked anywhere on a large scale in the United States of America, and switch to something that does work: intensive English immersion.

Snow: Five years ago, California ranked 48th in the nation in educational achievement. At that point, the governor of California decided he would invest more money in education: statewide standards were put in place for literacy and math teaching, new tests were introduced, class size was reduced in primary school, and Proposition 227 was passed.

Which of these many changes is responsible for improvement in educational outcome? If it was only LEP children in California whose test scores had gone up, we might say it was Proposition 227.

The fact of the matter is that everybody's test scores in California are going up—more or less equivalently. But the gap between the native English speakers and the non-native speakers is not decreasing, unfortunately. And the difference between immersion and bilingual education programs is actually in favor of bilingual programs.

Unz: During the California campaign, the supporters of bilingual education admitted the existing programs had terrible problems, but said that getting rid of them would be a disaster. Instead, the average test scores of over a million immigrant students have gone up by 50 percent in less than three years.

But don't believe me. Believe the New York Times, the Washington Post, and every major media source in the United States. The San Jose Mercury News conducted a statewide analysis of the test scores of studefnts who stayed in schools that kept their bilingual programs and those that shifted to intensive English immersion with rapid mainstreaming. They proclaimed in a front-page banner headline that the students in the English immersion programs showed test scores 20 percent, 40 percent, and even 100 percent higher, depending on grade and subject level, than the students in bilingual programs.

The war is over, at least it would be over if academics were willing to look at the reality of the world rather than their own research.

Snow: There are statisticians and researchers in California who give a totally different analysis of those scores. It's a very, very dubious claim that scores have gone upbecause of the elimination of bilingual education. But even if it were true, the recent increase in scores in California are not outcomes of long-term relevance to English-language learners. I want to know about long-term outcomes such as fourth-grade reading comprehension. I want to know whether children can understand stories, if they can explain their own reasoning when they do a math problem, if they can formulate their observations and test hypotheses in their science classes. Those are the outcomes that really count.

Unz: The impact of English immersion in California has been great—especially among younger children who learn new languages more easily. In fact, all of the anecdotal evidence indicates that parents and teachers think children are more enthusiastic about going to school than they were before. Reality trumps theory. The reality of a million students in California is not something that a few professors can whisk away by citing a couple of books.

Snow: I have no choice but to believe in the theory the data supports. We must recognize that while children are learning English they must learn other subjects as well. If they have access to education in their native languages, they can be learning about math and science and how to read. They can make use of that knowledge after they have acquired sufficient levels of proficiency in English. Learning English faster does not mean you learn English better.

About the Speakers Ron Unz, chairman of Wall Street Analytics, a financial services software company, spearheaded a California campaign that established English immersion programs across the state in 1998. He has founded a national advocacy organization, English for the Children, which promotes English immersion programs as opposed to bilingual education.

Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow is an expert on language and literacy development and the primary investigator of a 15-year longitudinal study of language and literacy skills among low-income children. Her many books and publications include Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success and Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.

About the Askwith Education Forums More information about the Askwith Education Forums is available in the HGSE Events Calendar.

About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.