English-Only Classrooms

Test scores coming out of California classrooms should help answer one of education's hottest questions: Do young children of recent immigrants learn better in English or their native language?

Two years after the state's voters passed Proposition 227 to ban bilingual education, native Spanish-speakers are showing significant gains in test scores. These students improved an average of nine points in reading and 14 points in math.

The scores further confirm that young children can learn far faster than previously expected (as Sesame Street showed us). Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed Prop 227, hailed the scores as validation of his assertion that bilingual education was holding kids back.

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Some other things, certainly, were holding them back, too: classrooms with 30 or more children, poorly trained teachers, and curricula weak in reading and math basics. All those things have been addressed by state reforms in the past couple of years.

On top of that, the administration of Gov. Gray Davis has set up an incentive system to reward schools whose pupils do well on the tests. Teaching to the tests has no doubt increased, with attendant improvements in scores.

Educators still need to sort out how much the higher test scores were a result of pushing kids into English-only instruction and how much to those other reforms.

But clearly, serious doubts have been raised about bilingual education as the best way to boost the academic performance of non-English-speaking children. Some of the biggest test gains were at schools that moved entirely toward English immersion after Prop 227. Other schools took wide advantage of a waiver provision in the law, which allowed parents to opt for continuing bilingual instruction.

Some of the latter schools, too, made gains. In comparing schools, much depends on the starting points. Schools with very low scores in the past might be expected to make rapid initial progress.

Still, youngsters thrown into the English classroom - and given attentive help - did indeed learn how to swim, linguistically speaking. The experience was not the disaster some educators predicted. California's experience bears close watching by other states.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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