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Will Californians say yes to multilingual education at ballot?

California voters will decide at the polls whether dual-language immersion programs can be more widely adopted in the Golden State – undoing the provisions of a 1998 measure that requires learning be 'overwhelmingly in English.'

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Rosalinda Gallegos guides a student through an assignment in her social studies class, which she conducts in Spanish, at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Glendale, Calif., on Oct. 24. In November, California voters will decide whether to allow the state to expand dual-immersion language education programs like Thomas Edison's.

In Room 3202 at Thomas Edison Elementary School, Spanish posters, signs, and calendars cover the walls. Rosalinda Gallegos, who teaches the class, gives instructions in Spanish. And when they break into groups to work on their assignments, students chatter away in Spanish, as well. But Ms. Gallegos isn't, strictly speaking, only a "Spanish teacher."

The class is one of 17 that make up the dual-language program at Edison Elementary, a K-6 school in Glendale, just north of Los Angeles. For half the day, fifth graders enrolled in the program come into Ms. Gallegos’s class and study science, art, and social studies entirely in Spanish. They spend the other half of the day learning math, computer science, and P.E. in English. 

The model helps English learners master grade-level content in their native language while developing English skills, say educators with the Glendale Unified School District. At the same time, the program exposes native English speakers to instruction in a second language.

“The advantage of being instructed in both languages is that the students become truly biliterate,” says Gallegos, who has two children enrolled in the school’s dual-immersion classes. “And I always say to them, ‘If you can think in two languages, you’re worth two people.’ ”

In November, California voters will decide at the polls whether to allow more multilingual education in public schools. For supporters, it is a way to give Golden State students – home to about 30 percent of all English language learners in the United States – an edge in a global economy. Opponents, however, are concerned that the measure will cause some of the state's most vulnerable students to fall behind.

If passed, Proposition 58 would undo a law passed 18 years ago that required students, including English-language learners, to receive instruction “overwhelmingly in English.” At the time, it was thought that English immersion was the best way to help immigrant students assimilate and thrive.

But during the past two decades, educators say, both dual-language immersion education and an understanding of its benefits have grown in public schools nationwide. From North Carolina to Oregon to Texas, state legislators and school districts have pushed to graduate students who can speak, read, write, and think in more than one language. Since 2012, 23 states have adopted the Seal of Biliteracy, an award given by a school, district, or county office of education to students who graduate high school with proficiency in two or more languages.

The federal government has also embraced biliteracy and multiliteracy in a bid to better prepare students for a global economy.

The trend springs from a growing body of research showing that when done right, bilingual education provides academic, cognitive, and sociocultural benefits for students at all levels and from a variety of backgrounds. Some say it marks a shift away from the thinking of a generation ago, when English proficiency alone was considered the most important standard for college and career success.

“Attitudes toward bilingualism in general were very negative just a couple of decades ago,” says Virginia Collier, professor emerita of bilingual, multicultural, and ESL education at George Mason University in Washington.

Today, however, “the internet is changing all that,” she says. “Parents see how multilingual the rest of the world is, how we’re very isolated when we say ‘English only.’ Now they want their kids to be bilingual.”

Does it work for English learners?

In California – where an estimated 200 languages are spoken – the swing toward biliteracy has taken shape in the debate over whether to repeal most of the provisions of Proposition 227.

Under Prop 227, which passed with more than 60 percent of the vote in 1998, bilingual education is allowed only if enough parents in a particular district or school sign a waiver authorizing it. And so school districts like Glendale Unified, with its focus on dual-language programs, remain the exception rather than the rule.

Support for Prop 227 stemmed from a real concern that English learners – majority of them Spanish-speaking students from immigrant or low-income families – were not achieving English proficiency and losing out to their peers in academic and economic opportunities.

The solution, proponents said at the time, was simple: Immerse the students in English.

“It’s harder for them to learn English if they speak Spanish in schools. It prevents them from being bilingual,” says Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman who sponsored the initiative. He points to data, collected between 1998 to 2002, showing improved test scores among English learners who switched to English-only programs.

But over the years, researchers like Collier have found that while English learners may have better test scores in the first few years after intensive English-only instruction, they tend to fall behind in the long term. The reason, she and others say, is that focusing solely on acquiring English for a year or two means the student misses out on crucial content instruction.

“They don’t get any more support for developing thinking skills in their first language, which slows down the cognitive process,” Collier says. “And they don’t ever catch up.”

Prop 58, advocates say, would give schools more freedom to choose which programs would best benefit their student populations – and ensure that English learners and native English speakers alike absorb content appropriate for their grade level.

Mr. Unz, who now leads the effort against the measure, remains unconvinced. While “it’s better to know more languages than fewer,” he says, “I think the advocates of these programs get overly enthusiastic.”

Should Prop 58 pass, he says, California risks backpedaling into the failed practices of 20 years ago and further disadvantaging English learners.

“And given all the problems public schools already face,” Unz adds, “it’s probably better to just make sure children master at least one language.”

'That extra step'

Having taught a dual-immersion class for nine years, Armine Iskandaryan knew right away she would enroll her 7-year-old son in the program. She and her husband speak mostly Armenian at home, but she says she wants more than conversational fluency for her children. She wants them to achieve true biliteracy.

“Just knowing how to read and write [in a language] is not enough,” Ms. Iskandaryan says. “The difference between language at home and language in the classroom is that in the classroom you use academic language, vocabulary that is needed to master the core standards and that is not usually used at home. For my kids I want that extra step.”

Research supports the concept. Over 18 years, Dr. Collier and her colleague at George Mason, Wayne Thomas, studied millions of student records and a range of bilingual education programs across the country. Their conclusion: Dual-language programs in particular “lead to grade-level and above-grade-level achievement in second language,” whether English or not. Such programs, they wrote, are the only ones that “fully close the gap” between English learners and native English speakers.

Children with disabilities and African-American students – two other historically at-risk groups with low achievement levels – also stood to benefit when classes are taught in two languages, they found. And the advantages, they note, range from better test scores and understanding of concepts to improved community relationships.

“So far we have not found any group of students that does not benefit,” Collier says. “It’s incredible how well the kids are doing in every single group we’ve looked at.”

Which is why school districts in Texas are increasingly offering language-immersion classes in Spanish and Mandarin. In 2006, Utah launched a comprehensive K-12 dual-language program – the first in the nation – that within seven years was serving 25,000 students statewide. North Carolina went from having four dual-immersion classes in 2003 to more than 30 today.

In all, more than 500 language-immersion programs offer nearly two dozen different languages across the US. And it’s about time, says Chuck Ransom, superintendent for Woodburn School District in Oregon, another state that has embraced language immersion for its public schools.

“If you look at other educational systems throughout the world, especially in developed countries, you’ll see learning a language is part of the core curriculum from elementary on up,” he says. “We have this idea that bilingual education is odd or unusual or revolutionary, when it’s just good practice.”

A big ask

Even proponents of language immersion acknowledge that developing a strong dual-language program is a big ask of schools already struggling to meet state and federal achievement standards.

School administrators have to be on board, they say, and district support is key. Teachers in particular need continuous training, not just in the typical content areas like math and science, but also in bilingualism and biliteracy.

They also need more time than usual to plan curricula and collaborate with other instructors. At Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Glendale, students spend half the day in an English-only classroom and the other half in an Armenian class. Teachers like Iskandaryan therefore have to work with their counterparts to make sure that none of the lessons are repeated.

“We divide it into sections,” she says. “Like today my partner is doing weather in English. I’m doing seasons in Armenian.” The following year, she says, the classes flip: what the students learned in English, they’ll learn in Armenian and vice versa. The difference is that the concepts will be at the second-grade level instead of first-grade.

“It takes a lot of planning,” Iskandaryan says. “It takes a lot of energy and a lot of time to put [lessons] together and make it something that I would want my own child to do.”

Another challenge is convincing parents that the dual-immersion model works. At the K-3 level, most children don’t do as well as their English peers on standardized tests – mostly because instruction in those years is focused less on teaching English and more on getting the kids to absorb subject content in the second language, educators and researchers say.

But that gap closes over the long term, they say, because once a child grasps a concept, that understanding transcends language.

“A lot of parents give up on that very first report card,” Iskandaryan says. “And if I wasn’t in this and I saw my son’s first report card, I would want to quit too.

“But I’m starting to see results now,” she says. “I tell parents to trust the program. And trust your own children that they will be able to catch up and make it.”

Back in Room 3202 at Edison Elementary, Gallegos, the fifth-grade teacher, guided students as they finished a group project around Native American culture. For days, the students had looked up information on different tribes, and were now presenting their findings to their respective groups – all in Spanish.

Christian, a thin boy with a mop of curly hair, says he started in kindergarten unable to speak anything but English. Now, he says, he understands Spanish well enough to enjoy his classes, especially science.

But his favorite thing about being bilingual has little to do with school. 

“I can have secret conversations with my friends,” he says, grinning. “It’s really good.”

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