ome people like to vent about bilingual education. Everyone has a story to tell. We have these perceptions and beliefs formed by what we have seen and heard anecdotal evidence and in some cases educational research we have read.
Let's consider the difference between research and anecdotal evidence. If you know a person who "learned English really fast when he was 5 years old" this is anecdotal. Research is when learned scholars use scientific methods to study large groups of language learners and draw conclusions based on the findings. Researchers do not promote a political agenda and are not seeking public office. They gather data to assist educators to know what works and what doesn't.
Research shows that when English learners start taking standardized tests in English, they lag behind English proficient students. This predictable phenomenon is called the "achievement gap." Research shows these kids begin to narrow the gap immediately, as they start learning English.
Then something very important happens. Those taught in predominantly English programs actually stop catching up with English speakers and show an achievement gap throughout high school! It is the students who are taught in dual language immersion programs that continue throughout the intermediate grades that catch up and then actually surpass the English-only students in about seventh grade.
Dual language immersion programs, simply put, are programs in which children speaking two different languages all learn each other's language and learn to read and write in both languages. A feature of this program is that it is long-term. It is not effective if implemented for a mere year or two.
This was a remarkable finding to me. It suggests that studying two languages and learning to read and write in both gives children an academic and cognitive edge over monolingual students and thus enables them to excel.
This has ramifications for both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families who want their children to excel. Consider the European model. Children are expected to become fluent in multiple languages and they are taught to do so early. Bilingualism is an asset both in terms of a discrete skill and apparently in terms of a mental exercise.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, we have the advent of No Child Left Behind. Bilingual education has suffered the blow of a national goal that all children read at grade level in English by third grade. Whoever thought this was possible must surely have had a very narrow view of humankind. It must have been someone with tunnel vision, focusing on only typical, average children. Wherever do those children exist?
My more suspicious friends believe that NCLB was thought up by someone intent on ruining public schools, devised by someone who favors private schools and vouchers. Someone who wants the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. A devious plan to say the least! A plan guaranteed to leave the less advantaged children behind.
Neither Proposition 227 nor the No Child Left Behind Act was based on educational research. Both promote a political agenda. Neither should be used to make educational decisions, although they must be used to make financial decisions about the schools since money flows where political policies and power direct it.
The truth is that education is a long-term project. It may be nice to be at grade level in the early grades, but the true test is what is the quality of your total educational experience and your total skill package when you graduate from high school. Also important is whether you are motivated and prepared to continue your education after high school.
I had been eagerly awaiting new research findings relating to how long-term student performance is affected by Prop 227, which put vast numbers of Spanish-speakers into English-only programs starting six years ago. The results are in. Researchers concluded recently "Prop 227 type programs have resulted in virtually no closure of the achievement gap." These students start behind and the majority of them do not catch up.
Research by educators continues to show students who know two languages out perform those that speak only one. And native English speakers who are taught in dual language immersion programs excel at phenomenal levels.
I am not alone in my somewhat scathing reviews of NCLB. Two days ago it was reported that Washington state legislators dubbed NCLB a coercive, unconstitutional act that sets unreachable goals for our students.
Sandra Nichols is a trustee and past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,700 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with the Santa Cruz City School District, and a former commissioner on the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication, or web site.
© Sandra Nichols 2005