September 29, 2000


Drowning in Immersion?

By Domenico Maceri

Imagine voters telling surgeons they could not use certain tools during an operation. Or telling music teachers that some instruments were illegal. California voters did something similar when they voted in 1998 by more than two to one to approve Proposition 227, which virtually eliminated bilingual education from the state's schools. They insisted teachers no longer use one of the tools they had for reaching students.

Recent newspaper headlines have suggested that maybe the voters were right. The results of the Stanford 9 test, showing significant improvement among Limited English-speaking Students, seem to indicate that voters knew more about teaching than teachers did. If you look beyond the headlines, however, the story is quite different.

Test scores in schools that eliminated bilingual education rose considerably. In the Oceanside School District, for example, reading scores for Limited English-Speakers in second grade rose from the twelfth to the thirty-second percentile in only two years. That means that in 1998 eighty-eight percent of kids nationwide read better than kids in Oceanside; today only sixty-eight percent do so. Scores in math and English showed similar increases. That looks pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, the headlines mask reality. An analysis by Stanford Professor Kenji Hakuta showed that scores on the Stanford 9 test went up for all of California's children. The increases were particularly high in second and third grades. Limited English Speakers and native speakers of English improved at roughly equal rates. The scores increased not only in schools that dropped bilingual education, but also in those that never had bilingual education to begin with. The few schools that continued to offer bilingual education also improved.

What accounts for the increase? A number of factors should receive credit, chief among them the class size reduction to twenty students in the early grades, the extra funding available in the last few years because of the strong economy, and the fact that teachers are now familiar with the test and have adjusted the curriculum to better mirror the test. Pressure to improve scores on the state test also had an effect because of financial rewards available to schools that managed to raise their performance.

Admittedly, children in English immersion programs showed slightly more improvement in their scores than children in bilingual education programs. However, even here, that one fact, in isolation, is misleading. The Stanford 9 is a multiple choice test and any foreign language teacher will tell you that a multiple choice test is not a very good measure of a student's knowledge of a language. Language skills include not simply written comprehension, which may be partially tested through a multiple-choice test, but also speaking, oral comprehension, and writing. These skills require personalized testing which goes far beyond the scope of a multiple choice test. In essence, it's possible to do well in a multiple choice test and not be able to pronounce a clear "Good morning" or communicate the most basic things you want to say.

But if the Stanford 9 test tells us little about students' understanding of the English language, it tells us even less about their educational achievement. Education goes far beyond knowledge of the English language. Education includes math, science, music, social studies, and a wide range of other subjects. Even if children forced to learn only in English show some small improvement in their knowledge of the language in the early grades, they are missing out in other areas, because in math, science, and other subjects they simply don't know what is going on. Learning is literally a foreign language to them.

But the content these kids miss out on is not the most important thing. Far worse is learning that they're not expected to know what's going on. Children who listen and listen without understanding learns that they cannot understand, and may begin to believe they are stupid.

Immigrant children's feelings don't matter to anti-bilingual education proponents. They tell kids to sink or swim, as we used to do at the turn of the century. But children's feelings do matter. In order to learn, they have to feel comfortable in school. And that means that from the first day they arrive, they must know they will be understood if they ask to go to the bathroom or need to complain about another child hitting them or hurting their feelings. English speaking parents send their children off to kindergarten with assurances that if they need anything, the teacher is there to help them. All they have to do is ask. What makes them believe that Spanish-speaking children can somehow do without the same sort of assurance?

If anything, Spanish speaking, who are usually poor, and whose parents can do little to help them with their education, need more assurance. Even with the best bilingual education programs in place they would still be at a disadvantage. Tying their teachers' hands by declaring bilingual education illegal merely adds to the disadvantages.

Domenico Maceri (, PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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