Bilingual ED Not Dead
How “back-door” bilingual education flouts state law and harms California students
Under 227’s provisions, “all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English.” Specifically, “English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion,” with English immersion defined as a process “in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language.” In other words, instruction of EL students was to be “overwhelmingly” in English, in contrast with bilingual-education methods that emphasized instructing EL students in their native language.
Although victorious by a landslide margin of 61 to 39 percent, the public education establishment, for the most part, firmly opposed 227. It’s not surprising, then, that school districts, principals and teachers often undermine the letter and spirit of 227.
Two years after the measure’s approval, a University of California study found that some school districts aggressively pushed parents to take advantage of a loophole in 227 that allowed parents to sign waivers to keep their children in bilingual-education classrooms. The most recent statistics show that less than 10 percent of EL students are in such waivered bilingual-education classes. The more insidious undercutting of 227, however, involves under-the-radar bilingual education in supposedly English-immersion classes.
According to the UC study, “some schools and districts complied with Proposition 227 by creating their own definitions of terms such as ‘overwhelmingly’ in English.” “Thus, students assigned to a structured English immersion classroom,” observed the researchers, “might have been provided with 52 percent of their instruction in English, meeting their own definition of ‘overwhelming.’” In addition, the study found, “in some cases one was tempted to conclude on the basis of administrator interviews that not much had changed.” More recent research comes to similar conclusions.
A 2007 survey of teachers and principals at a sample of California elementary schools by EdSource, a Bay Area-based education research organization, found that eight percent of teachers reported EL students receiving math instruction in their native language, presumably due to parental waivers. However, 32 percent said that EL students received some native-language instruction from classroom personnel. Students in these classes should have been immersed in English but were not.
A five-year study of 227 sponsored by the California Department of Education found “continued ambiguity” due to the widely varied interpretation of what constituted instruction “overwhelmingly in English.” In one of the study’s surveys, most districts reported allowing “the use of [EL students’ native language] on an occasional or even frequent basis, at least under certain conditions” in supposedly English-immersion settings. The regularity of native-language instruction in these English-immersion settings “somewhat blurs the distinction” between English immersion and bilingual education.
Why is this hybrid “bilingual-education light” a problem? Not only does it upend the intent of the initiative, experts say that it impedes the English acquisition of EL students. Johanna Haver, author of the book Structured English Immersion, warns, “It is especially disruptive if the [EL] children hear phrases in their native language mixed with English from the teacher and/or other students.” The reason is that “children will simply tune out the English and pay attention to their native language.”
All this back-door bilingual education makes a proper evaluation of Prop. 227 impossible, hurts EL students, and presents a clear challenge to the democratic choice of California voters. Gov. Schwarzenegger, a strong supporter of Proposition 227, should team with other lawmakers to research the extent of stealth bilingual education and then use the state’s power of the purse to ensure that the will of voters is enforced.
Lance T. Izumi is senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute and co-author of “English Immersion or Law Evasion: A 10th Anniversary Retrospective on Proposition 227 and the ‘End’ of Bilingual Education.”