Back to Skills

With New Research, Policy Shifts, Bilingual Education on Rise

Decades of restrictions on bilingual education in public schools across the country — and particularly in California — led to a dramatic reduction of bilingual teachers.

Back to Skills

Decades of restrictions on bilingual education in public schools across the country — and particularly in California — led to a dramatic reduction of bilingual teachers. Now that California voters have permitted bilingual education through Proposition 58, which passed in November 2016, the state faces a shortage of talent.

On the other hand, the current state of bilingual education is entering a new era in which it’s increasingly seen as an advantage for students, particularly English learners, experts agreed during a panel discussion last month at an Education Writers Association seminar in Anaheim, Calif. (The event was entirely in Spanish.)

Prohibitions on bilingual education in states — including Arizona, California, and Massachusetts — led some English-language learners to drop out of school, said speaker Patricia Gándara, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition, her research found that such policies led to more English learners being inappropriately classified as students with disabilities.

In California, however, there was another effect: A big drop in the number of bilingual teachers.

“In California, the effect of Proposition 227 affected dramatically the number of candidates to become bilingual teachers, since the year that legislation entered into effect and until 2015, the number of these teachers fell to one-third,” she said.

Gándara said that research has now cast doubt on the notion that bilingual education programs were hurting English learners.

“Not only was it said that being bilingual had no benefits for the student, but that it hurt them,” she said. “Today all kinds of research on dual-language immersion and  bilingual education show the opposite, proving that kids in those programs can even surpass the rest in the ELA standardized tests results,” she said.

A Closer Look at Research

A study published in April in the American Education Research Journal finds that English learners who were randomly selected to participate in a dual-immersion program through a lottery gained seven to nine months in English-language learning compared to their peers who were not admitted into the program.

Based on the study, titled the “Effects of Dual-Language Immersion Programs on Student Achievement,” Gándara illustrated her point through a chart on research published in 2015 that compared Latino English learners in bilingual, dual-immersion and English-immersion classrooms. The study showed that while English-immersion students learn English more quickly in elementary school, the students enrolled in dual-immersion and bilingual classes surpassed them at the middle school level in reading, writing, speaking and listening proficiency.

Gándara also mentioned that students in bilingual education have a higher probability to attend a 4-year college or university.

“Research done from 2014 until 2016 has showed us that kids that start in dual immersion or bilingual programs have results below average in their first grades, but then they start to go up and reach the same level as their counterparts who don’t participate in those programs by the middle school grades. Once in high school they surpass them,” Gándara said.

David Nieto, the executive director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education and an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, noted that dual immersion programs are dodging the word ‘bilingual,’ although dual-immersion is a form of bilingual education.

The term ‘bilingual’ has come to have negative connotations and to mean that a student doesn’t speak English well, he said.

“For English-language learners, the goal was being in a bilingual program for no more than three years,” Nieto said. “[The home language] was seen as a transition language, but nothing else. In this country, having two languages is not as valued.”.

It’s important, he said, to change the notion that a student who is not fully fluent  in the English language can’t learn. “That’s not true.”

Charter Network Features Dual-Immersion Program

Eva Pacheco, the executive director of EJE Academies Charter Schools, a California-based charter network, agreed with Nieto that some ELL students are wrongly classified as having difficulty learning only because English is not their first language.

The EJE charter network offers dual-immersion language programs for elementary and middle school students in the El Cajon Valley school district, in San Diego County. Many students who come to EJE academies were identified previously for special education services, Pacheo said.

“We realized that those students didn’t have any kind of learning disability or special needs; they were just not fluent in English, but they were capable of learning.”

“Our kids have been told that English is the language of success, and that makes them feel ashamed of being bilingual,” Pacheco said during the EWA panel.

The approach to bilingual education at this charter network requires that English is the first language half of the students in a class,. The goal is for students to become fully bilingual and bi-literate in both languages, learning at a gradual pace.

Recent research indicates that dual-language immersion programs are likely the most effective model to educate students who have limited English skills and closes the achievement gaps between English learners and their peers over the long term.

Bilingual education lost favor in the 1990s after a group of Spanish-speaking parents filed a lawsuit charging that their children were segregated into separate classrooms and were not learning English quickly enough.

Detractors of bilingual education, like Rosalie Padilo Porter, the chairwoman of ProEnglish and a researcher who once taught bilingual education, warn of segregation and isolation for English learners. Porter fought against the 2016 repeal in Massachusetts of a 2002 voter-approved initiative to require English immersion in public schools, saying immersion worked in the state, as well as in Arizona.

While some have questioned whether dual-immersion schools end up segregated, Gándara pointed out that due to the popularity of these programs among white, affluent families, the programs are attracting a more diverse student population.

“This is, in fact, one of the only ways we have left to avoid segregation in schools. Non-Latino parents are highly attracted to the idea that diversity in culture and language is better for their kids. That’s why we have seen an increase in the demand for bilingual programs,” Gándara said.

In November of last year, Californians approved Proposition 58, which overturned an earlier state mandate that all public schools provide instruction in English only, unless parents chose otherwise. (The early requirement was established after in response to a ballot reference in 1998.)

California has more than 1.4 million students classified as English learners, most of whom speak Spanish as their first language. About 5 percent of California public schools offer dual-language programs.

Pacheco said that out of almost 30 schools in the El Cajon Valley school district, the EJE academies are the only schools that offer bilingual education.

Proposition 58 now allows the growth of bilingual and multilingual programs in schools across the state and brings more flexibility for schools to implement those programs.

Some school districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District are welcoming the change in state policy. Just this school year, the system started offering its first 10 early childhood programs that are dual immersion, eight in Spanish and two in Korean.

Meeting Community Demand

The success of those programs, according to the panelists, resides precisely in how early and how far they go. Pacheco says that her schoolsstarted offering the program from kindergarten and decided to extend to eighth grade because they saw greater gains in higher grades.

“This was a demand from the community. They were happy with the education their kids were having and the good results, so we had to extend it to the grade eight,” Pacheo said.

Their own alumni value their bilingual education so much that now they are coming back to be bilingual teachers at their schools, Pacheco said.

“They are grateful for having a bilingual education that allowed them to keep their native language, their culture and at the same time to go into college,” she said. “They want the same for the younger kids in their community.