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Background: Bilingual Education

August 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: What happened when California rolled back bilingual education? Spencer Michels begins our coverage.

SPENCER MICHELS: Two years after California voters decided to shut down most bilingual education classes, new test results have provoked a new debate. The scores show that some Spanish-speaking students have dramatically improved their English reading and other academic skills by as much as nine percentage points for second graders. But state education officials say test results for all students are up, and they say it is premature by several years to conclude that ending bilingual education has helped Spanish speakers. Still, the results are being hailed by those who led the drive for Proposition 227, the highly controversial measure that outlawed bilingual education in 1998.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Today, many immigrants work long hours, yet barely earn enough to feed their children. Unless schools teach children to read and write English, they may be trapped in the same hard life. Vote yes on Proposition 227.

SPENCER MICHELS: The ballot measure, which passed with 61% of the vote, was designed to end classes where Spanish-speaking students were taught some subjects in Spanish, with more English used as they got older. That system kept test scores down and dropout rates high, according to Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, who wrote the ballot measure.

RON UNZ, Proposition 227 Author: The reasons they’re doing so badly is they don’t learn how to read or write English properly in the schools, since the schools don’t teach them English at a young age.

SPENCER MICHELS: The new law directed schools to place students with limited English proficiency into classes where English is the only language spoken– so-called English immersion.

TEACHER: So I’m going to give you a hard one– because you’re in second grade. (Laughs) Measure. Measure. Remember, we measure how tall we are?

SPENCER MICHELS: Nearly half the nation’s children who are not proficient in English live in California: About 1.4 million. So California’s experience with eliminating bilingual education was watched closely.

TEACHER: Good job.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even after Proposition 227 passed, many educators continued to argue that bilingual education was much more effective than English immersion. They said if it were eliminated, test scores would drop even lower. Berkeley Superintendent Jack McLaughlin.

JACK McLAUGHLIN, Berkeley School Superintendent: Actually, there’s overwhelming evidence throughout the nation that teaching reading in a student’s native language is definitely in the best interest of that student.

SPENCER MICHELS: But today, statewide, 90% of limited-English students are in immersion classes. And the new test scores show those students have improved, especially in the early grades, where scores went up three to five points in reading and five to seven points in math over two years.

TEACHER: So either way, these two pieces are going to make seven. Right? Now what do I do?

SPENCER MICHELS: Skeptics, including state education officials, are not convinced. They say smaller classes and increased spending may account for the fact that results for all students are up. They say it’s too early to tell the true impact of English immersion. And they emphasize that even with the increases, the scores of non-English speakers remain abysmally low. They say the gap between English speakers and non-English speakers is as wide as ever.