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English learners still far behind using immersion methods

Sarah Garland/California WatchPatty Sanchez gets ready to read a story in Spanish to kindergartners at Geddes Elementary School in Baldwin Park, which adopted a dual-language education program seven years ago.

BALDWIN PARK – The end of the school day in Patty Sanchez’s kindergarten class at Geddes Elementary School is not so different from other kindergarten classes around the state. Children gather on a rug as Sanchez holds up a storybook about a coyote and a turtle and reads out loud. 

What’s different is that Sanchez is reading in Spanish.

Nearly all of the children in the room are Hispanic, and many are English-language learners. The few who are new to Spanish are expected to follow along with the story, too, and respond in Spanish to Sanchez’s questions. 

Halfway through the story, she asks one little boy, a native English speaker, “¿Por qué está llorando la tortuga?” and quiets the children sitting nearby who try to whisper hints. 

When he struggles with an answer, she gives him a prompt: Is the turtle triste – sad – or feliz – happy? 

Finally, he gets it. “Triste!” he says.

The scene highlights a continuing California debate: More than a decade after voters approved an initiative to limit bilingual education in public schools, the state is using a hodgepodge of programs. Meanwhile, critics contend, young students pay the price.

Educators cannot agree on the best way to teach English to non-native speakers. Success is anecdotal. Studies appear to contradict each other. Meanwhile, the percentage of California English learners who are proficient in fourth-grade English has dropped on a national test. 

The dual-language program at Geddes, where children are taught in Spanish 90 percent of the day until third grade, is a relative rarity in California these days. Since 1998, when voters passed Proposition 227, limiting the use of bilingual education, the number of English learners being taught in their primary language has dropped by half. 

At the same time, the number of English learners has grown to about 1.5 million – about a quarter of California’s student population. Nearly 85 percent of them are Spanish speakers. 

Proponents of Prop. 227 say English immersion is essential to students learning the language as quickly as possible, pointing to increases in academic performance by English learners on state tests since the law passed. About a third of English learners scored proficient or above on the state tests in fourth grade last year, more than double the percentage who were proficient in 2003. 

“All the supporters of bilingual education said it would be a total disaster when it passed,” said Ron Unz, who led the movement for Prop. 227. “After the initiative passed, there was a lot of resistance. But within a couple of years, the tests came out. Everyone switched around.”

But on the reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gap between English learners and native speakers hasn’t budged. Only 4 percent of California’s English learners were at least proficient in fourth-grade reading in 2009 on the national test, slightly less than in 2003, when it was 6 percent. 

The lack of progress in the younger grades trickles up: More than half of English learners now in California high schools are “long-term English learners,” meaning they have been in public schools for six years without learning English, according to a 2010 report by Californians Together, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Bilingual education in California never worked, said Linda Espinosa, a former principal in a bilingual school in California and a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher who now works as a consultant for the California Department of Education. “The children never became proficient in English, and they tended to lose their home language,” she said.

But the English immersion system is not working either, she said.

Some students still learn in bilingual settings, where they gradually transition from their home language to English, while most others are immersed in English right away, usually with the help of specialized programs that help them learn English.  A few schools have veered from both approaches and adopted dual-language programs, in which half the students are native English speakers and half are native Spanish speakers.

“When you put them in all-English situations, that really retards their academic growth,” said Maria Quezada, CEO of the California Association for Bilingual Education. “You lose that valuable connection to the family, and you put them at a disadvantage when they can’t participate as easily.”

Success with bilingual program

Geddes Elementary, which adopted a dual-language education program seven years ago, is the sort of school that bilingual proponents would hold up to bolster their cause. Located in a Los Angeles suburb, most of the students at Geddes are low-income, Hispanic and English learners, characteristics that tend to be linked to low achievement. 

Yet more than 60 percent of the school’s third-graders scored proficient or advanced on state tests in English language arts last year. That percentage is higher than the state average for students who speak only English, meaning these students closed the gap on an English test after spending most of their educational career learning in Spanish. The school’s scores on the state’s Academic Performance Index have risen from 674 in 2007 to 811 in 2010, above the state’s goal for all schools.

“It’s working,” said Virginia Castro, an energetic young principal who took over the school four years ago. “I think it’s tapping into what they’ve known in Europe for a long time. Children don’t just have to learn one language at a time.”

However, most English learners being taught in their primary language still are struggling. Last year, they scored lower than those taught in sheltered English classes and lower than those taught in English with no support program on state fourth-grade English language arts tests. 

Patricia Gandara, an educational psychologist at UCLA, said students in bilingual programs often go to schools with higher concentrations of poverty, which is linked to lower test scores. She also said bilingual education programs have struggled because of a reduction in the number of qualified bilingual educators in California. In 2006, 556 teachers were certified to teach bilingual education, compared with 440 last year.

Researchers say learning to read in English is easier for children who come to school as good readers in their native language.

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“For children who have low levels of early reading skills in their home language, we have to help them. It doesn’t just transfer automatically,” said Espinosa, the Department of Education consultant. “It is the huge job of education.”

Increasing the involvement of immigrant parents in their children’s education, particularly early on, is also critical, school leaders and experts say. For parents who don’t speak English and have a low level of education themselves, helping with homework and advocating for their children can be difficult. But Gandara says connecting a child’s home life with school is the linchpin to success. 

“The issue around bilingual instruction for me is, most importantly, having teachers in the classroom who can communicate with the parents and get parents to help them,” Gandara said. “Teachers who can talk to parents, can gain the trust of the parents – we don’t have that by and large in California.”

A few educators argue that the fight over the language of instruction is actually a distraction from the real dilemmas in how best to educate California’s English learners.

“Way too much energy is placed on bilingual and monolingual education, rather than what are we going to do to have the very best program implemented, whatever type of program,” said Norm Gold, a former consultant for the California Department of Education. 

Castro, the principal at Geddes, talked about how teachers went from giving two assessments a year to giving tests every two weeks in reading and math to keep track of students’ progress and help those who are falling behind. 

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on knowing who our kids are. I’m big on data,” Castro said. “Based on that data, we create intervention groups.” 

Manzanita SEED Elementary School in Oakland is another bilingual school that has closed the achievement gap. Last year, it was one of only two schools in California to receive federal recognition as a Title I Distinguished School for its high test scores. 

Manzanita’s principal, Katherine Carter, helped open the school in 2005. On the wall of her office, she keeps a display with photos of every student in the school, categorized by their test scores. The school also has implemented an expeditionary learning model, in which students do major projects as a part of the curriculum and standards are emphasized. 

Researchers confirm what these principals have found: There is no difference in educational quality or performance of English learners based on whether they were in a bilingual or an English-only setting.

Instead, researchers say what matters more is whether schools use data and track student performance on an ongoing basis, whether the curriculum is rigorous and whether teachers are trained to help English learners connect their learning with what they already know in their own language.

Beating the odds

At a handful of English-only schools across the state, limited-English students have shown they can beat the odds, no matter the language of instruction. Rocketship Education, a chain of charter schools in San Jose, has used technology and block scheduling to lift the scores of English learners far above the state average. Think College Now, a school in Oakland, and Baldwin Elementary School, in the San Gabriel Valley, are English-only schools that have raised test scores by focusing intensely on the state’s core standards.

Sarah Garland/California WatchA volunteer reads with a student at Think College Now in Oakland. About two-thirds of the school's students are English learners, but like at most schools in California, they learn in classrooms where only English is spoken.

Think College Now teachers invite parents into their children’s homerooms for a half-hour each morning to read to their children in whatever language with which they feel comfortable.

Maria Bibiano, a stay-at-home mother from Acapulco, Mexico, comes every day to read books in Spanish with her youngest daughter, who is in kindergarten. “Before, I didn’t read with them. I didn’t realize I should make them read,” she said. “There’s a difference. She can read more than my other children at this age.”

Bilingual education “wasn’t the magic pill,” said Gold, the former California official. “It wasn’t the panacea that some advocates said it was. But it certainly wasn’t the devil’s curse that a lot of the opponents said it was either.”

Officials at the state Education Department are pushing districts to do more to close the achievement gap. Last year, the department published a book [PDF] synthesizing the best research on teaching English learners aimed at teachers, administrators and superintendents.  

One chapter summarizes 83 recent studies on how best to teach literacy to limited-English students; another outlines the advantages of dual-language programs. State officials say the book sold out almost overnight.

“We know a bunch of stuff,” Gold said. “Why don’t we see it happening?”

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between California Watch, part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

This story was edited by Denise Zapata. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Filed under: K–12

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