In 1998, the people of California marked a dramatic change of course for the state’s English language learners, and passed Proposition 227. Arizonans followed their lead in 2000 with a similar initiative passed by a nearly two-to-one margin. The people of both states effectively voted to end bilingual education as it is known and taught across America, and to replace it with a one-year program of English immersion.
While Arizona is just implementing its new law, the results in California are impressive. Second-grade English learners improved their reading scores three percentile points last year and 12 points over the three years under the new system. Students near the bottom of the class are also demonstrating significant progress.
But the reforms went even further. California’s law included a lesser-known provision that provides $50 million a year for 10 years to teach adults English, provided they pledge to use that knowledge to help a child learn English as well. The programs are highly popular with English-learning adults. As one newspaper there reported in February, “after-hours English classes burst at seams.” Some counties have waiting lists to get in the classes, which are filled up to four nights per week.
California also passed an innovative new law that offers one-time grants of $100 to school districts for each K – 12th grade English learner successfully reclassified as proficient in English. The deadline for schools to apply for the first round of these grants is April 2002, with results to be made public by next summer.
The progress in California has not gone unnoticed. Educators from coast to coast are moving ahead with innovative programs to improve the educational achievement of English learners. This paper examines how some of the new policies are faring, and how others could be implemented to further improve upon the gains we are seeing in California, as bilingual education gives way to more effective teaching methods.
Lessons Learned from California’s Bilingual Reform Experience
In America today, 58 percent of Hispanic 4th graders score below basic in reading English, meaning they could read little beyond simple words and sentences and could not draw conclusions from what they read. They are functionally illiterate.
In addition, 52 percent of those Hispanic 4th graders (and 59% of Hispanic 8th graders) score below basic in math. In other words, they can’t do math.
The high school dropout rate for Hispanics less than 25 years of age is 40 percent, and their four-year college attendance levels lag significantly behind those of the population as a whole.
These numbers are nothing short of a catastrophe for young Hispanics and for the United States. A major culprit in this education debacle is bilingual education. A child in Beijing or any other foreign metropolis is more likely to learn English at an early age than one trapped in a bilingual education program in the United States. After billions of dollars and 25 years of bilingual education, the failure of the educational system to teach Hispanics cries out for change.
In 1998, the people of California heard those cries, and passed Proposition 227, which marked a dramatic change of course for the state’s English language learners, most of whom are Hispanics. Arizonans followed their lead in 2000 with a similar initiative passed by a nearly two-to-one margin. The people of both states effectively voted to end bilingual education as it is known and taught across America, and to replace it with a one year program of English immersion.
While Arizona is just implementing its new law, the results in California are impressive. Second-grade English learners improved their reading scores three percentile points last year and 12 points over the three years under the new system. Similarly, third-grade language scores improved three points last year and 13 points over three years. Math scores in grades 2 through 6 actually showed the most improvement: up 17 points in second grade, 18 points in third, and at least 10 points in grades 4 through 6 over the 3 years, and 3 points or more last year.
Students near the bottom of the class are also making meaningful progress. Over the last three years, the percentage of California English learners scoring above the 25th percentile of the national sample has soared in reading, math and language arts, in some grades by more than 20 percent. [For more on California’s test scores, see the Lexington Institute’s “Test scores of California English learners in grades 2-8 show strong improvement in reading, math and language skills,” by Michael Paranzino and Don Soifer, August 23, 2001, https://lexingtoninstitute.org/education/testscores.htm]
State and Federal Policy Proposals
The progress in California has not gone unnoticed. After 25 years of stultifying, and unsuccessful, adherence to the bilingual education regime, educators from coast to coast are moving ahead with innovative programs to improve the educational achievement of English learners. In this paper, we examine how some of the new policies are faring, and how others could be implemented to further improve upon the gains we are seeing in California, as bilingual education gives way to more effective teaching methods.
Replace bilingual education with English immersion
The best way to help English learners is to replace bilingual education programs with structured English immersion programs. The successful California and Arizona initiatives replace bilingual programs with an intensive, one-year English immersion program that prepares students for mainstream English classes the second year.
Bilingual education students generally learn English more slowly, later, and less effectively than their peers. It hinders them not only in seeking higher education but also in obtaining the most desirable employment later in life. These deficiencies are becoming even more important in our digital economy, where the ability to read and write English on computers is integral to most high-wage jobs. It would be unconscionable to sacrifice another generation of English learners in order to protect the status quo.
Some bilingual proponents are genuinely concerned about how older students would fare in an immersion setting, while appearing more amenable to embracing immersion for young students. While the test scores suggest that all students would benefit from immersion programs, the case is certainly strongest for younger children. This should not surprise us. There is a wealth of scientific data that shows that younger children can learn a second language easier and more effectively than older children and adults. Some of this data was discussed at the White House Conference on Early Childhood hosted by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Younger children are simply “hard wired” to learn languages.
This may be where competing factions can first find common ground. All sides should come together in support of immersion for English learners in elementary schools, even if they agree to disagree over junior high and high school students.
Offer English immersion programs as an option
Even where bilingual repeal is politically difficult or unlikely, every student in a bilingual program should, at a minimum, have the opportunity for his or her parents to cho
Find Archived Articles: