Los Angeles Times
Monday, March 2, 1998
A LOOK AHEAD
Amid debate over bilingual education comes supportive research from
L.A. Unified and Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. But with critics calling
research seriously flawed . . .
Opinions Vary on Studies That Back Bilingual Classes
By AMY PYLE,
Times Education Writer
As the debate over bilingual education bounds toward a spring ballot
initiative, two studies scheduled to be released today land on the side
of teaching children in their native language first, then gradually switching
However, critics of bilingual education and
even some supporters raised questions about the studies.
One, by the Los Angeles Unified School District,
focuses on students who remained at the same elementary school from first
through fifth grade--a stability that is unusual in the state's largest
school system. When the 4,200 students were given standardized English
tests in fifth grade, those who had come through the native language bilingual
program fared better than those who had been enrolled only in tailored
English classes known as English Language Development.
The other study, by the Claremont Colleges-based
Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, registered a similar gap based on a survey
of 11 previous studies of bilingual programs across the country.
Political scientist Harry Pachon, the institute's
director, said the findings shift the onus of proof to supporters of June's
anti-bilingual initiative, English for the Children, which would replace
bilingual education with just one year of English immersion.
"It's up to them to prove that bilingual
education isn't working," Pachon said. "If aspirin reduces a
headache and we have data to prove it, why remove aspirin as an option?"
But supporters of Proposition 227 described
the research as heavily flawed--noting that of the 11 studies covered by
the institute's survey, nine are more than 17 years old, and alleging that
L.A. Unified could not see beyond its vested interest in the status quo.
Ron Unz, the initiative's author, said he
was particularly disturbed that even among this elite group of students--who
stayed put for all of elementary school and received a consistent program--just
39% of the native-language-program students graduated to mainstream English
by the end of fifth grade. The district's current goal is for all students
to be weaned from bilingual education within five years.
"Are they proud about the fact that
over 60% of these students didn't redesignate?" Unz asked.
The Unz campaign received an early boost
from polls showing that a majority of the state's voters favored it, though
the lead has decreased in more recent polling. The opposition campaign
has kicked into gear in recent weeks, bolstered by such backing as the
recent decision to oppose the initiative by the American Educational Research
Assn., an international group of scholars and researchers.
Even some of those who generally support
bilingual education questioned the validity of the new studies. Of the
L.A. Unified research, for instance, board member David Tokofsky remarked:
"How can you have an evaluation done by your own people? Outsiders
will just laugh at that."
Indeed, a closer look at the L.A. Unified
study raises some troubling questions that sent shudders through the district
late last week as the release date approached. In particular, district
staff acknowledged that 3,000 native-language-program students were not
counted because they did not read English well enough in fifth grade to
be tested on the English language Stanford 9 test. In the English Language
Development comparison group, however, all students were tested regardless
of their mastery of the language.
Forrest Ross, the district's elementary bilingual
administrator, said a hurried look at more comparable test scores--including
only those students in the top English levels for both groups--suggested
a smaller but still consistent gap favoring native language.
The community activist who worked with parents
at Ninth Street School to stage a student boycott two years ago to lobby
for English classes said, "Their study makes our point; we can thank
them for their study. They have described the problem in the LAUSD."
Times' coverage of Alice Callaghan's protest
caught Unz's eye, leading him to propose the initiative. It would essentially
wipe out both types of L.A. Unified programs in favor of full English immersion,
except where parents attain waivers from school boards.
What the L.A. Unified study shows, Callaghan
said, is that all limited-English-speaking children are failing, "which
is exactly why we're proposing something different."
Ross countered that Unz's proposal is completely
Data on what works best in acquiring language
is plentiful, but also contradictory. Many studies indicate that students
taught in their native language first need between five and seven years
to transition to English, but perform better by the time they reach high
school. Others have cited a negligible difference among the various programs,
suggesting that public school districts might be smart to err on the side
of quicker English immersion programs.
Of the battling research, the Tomas Rivera
report concluded: "Both sides have claimed that scholarly research
supports their respective positions. Their reading of the literature, however,
is often selective, exaggerated and distorted."
The institute, on the other hand, claims
that its assessment is "unsentimental," because it gathered a
range of studies from many different camps and included only those that
met stringent criteria.
Yet even the institute reaffirms the most
common finding of such reviews: "The vast majority of evaluations
of bilingual programs are so methodologically flawed in their design that
their results offer more noise than signal."
That problem, the report concludes, makes
it difficult to address one of the most pressing questions about bilingual
education: How long should students be enrolled in such programs and what
is the ideal ratio of native language versus English instruction?
Government professor Jay Greene, who produced
the Rivera study, said he was surprised by its conclusions because of his
own mixed feelings about bilingual education.
"I was skeptical," said Greene,
an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He added that
in the end the greater problem is the low quality of education in large
"I think it's probably true that quality
of instruction matters much more than the language of instruction,"
he said. "But if we want to move toward higher quality instruction,
it won't help to eliminate [the native language] option and in fact it's
much more likely to hurt."
* * *
The Los Angeles Unified School District compared
test scores of students who had remained at the same elementary school
for at least five years. The study found that Spanish-speaking students
enrolled in bilingual programs outdid those who had taken the more English-intensive
English Language Development Program. But both groups fell below the district's
Results of Stanford 9 English Test, Grade 5