Arizona Republic

Thursday, August 6, 1998

Bilingual Education an Asset That Can Offer Global Rewards

Bilingual education sounds nice, and it works, too!

The public should not be terribly surprised to discover that software millionaire and aspiring politician Ron Unz, who led the successful drive last month to replace California's bilingual education program, tells a lie or two. But it is a surprise, and a shame, when a journalist for The Republic uncritically propagates those lies.

Ruben Navarrette's column on bilingual education (July 22) states that "bilingual education sounds nice, but it doesn't work." Why? Because, he says, "only 7 percent of the students in bilingual education programs learn enough English to make the transition into mainstream courses."

Take all the limited-English proficient (LEP) children in California's public schools and count how many, after being in school for just one year, learn enough English to transition into regular classes. The answer is only about 7 percent.

Now ask a question that Navarrette didn't ask. How many of California's LEP children are in bilingual education classes? Answer: Only about 30 percent. That means that the statistic which leads us to believe that bilingual education is failing is actually much more an indication of what happens to children who don't have bilingual education.

What's more, no bilingual education program aims to teach children English in just one year. Few if any of us, child or adult, could learn English well enough to handle the often decontextualized world of school within just one year. This is exactly why bilingual education programs teach children English as a second language over the course of three to six years, while providing instruction in school subjects in their native language so that they don't fall behind.

And bilingual education works, too. Just a month after Ron Unz misled the good people of California into thinking their system was failing, standardized test results in English (California's STAR system) indicated that children who went through bilingual programs outperformed monolingual English-speaking children in math, reading, and even language arts.

This fact may come as a surprise to those inundated by the incessant criticism of schools that is passed along in the press, but it is no surprise to those who have read the professional research literature on language education programs. While a few studies have found that children in bilingual programs do no better than other children, the overwhelming consensus of the research community, based on empirical measures, is that children in bilingual programs outperform their peers in "immersion" and mainstream classes. And in addition, they maintain and develop literacy in another language.

Rather than dismantle these highly successful bilingual programs, Arizona should strengthen them and make similar resources available to all children. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has introduced a program aimed to do precisely this, called "English-Plus," which acknowledges the great importance of bilingualism in our modern global community.

"People should not have to abandon the language of their birth to learn the language of their future," McCain said. "The ability to speak languages in addition to English is a tremendous resource to our country."

Our goal in Arizona should be to teach all children to communicate in two languages, perhaps even three. Let's not follow California down the road of deception, misinformation, and poor public policy. Multilingualism is an asset, and Arizona must embrace it.

Jeff MacSwan is an assistant professor of education at Arizona State University.