Lessons for California’s Prop. 58 on Bilingual Ed

Bilingual Education requires patience and flexible thinking.  Hopefully Californians will have both of those things as they go to the polls in November.  Prop. 58 is a ballot initiative that would undo 1998’s Prop. 227, which drastically reduced bilingual education for the state’s 1.4 million English Learners (ELs).  To put this in context, 42% of Californian students speak a language other than English at home and 22% of Californian students are learning English at school.  In 1998, the state overwhelmingly supported a shift to English-only education, though school districts and parents did have some options to continue using students’ native languages.

Political rhetoric abounds when addressing the language of education, so for today we’ll put opinions aside and look at the argument that both sides are making about how students learn.  Do English-immersion or bilingual/dual-language programs provide better outcomes for students?  Even as a former bilingual teacher, I sometimes struggled against the intuition that said that my students would learn English best by teaching only in English, even though I knew that research said otherwise.  So, it’s understandable that others would have the same wonderings.

As is the case in most questions of research, the results are somewhat mixed and nuanced.  But, in this case, they lean toward the side of bilingual education.

Luckily, California was smart and planned for the evaluation of Prop 227.  This evaluation found that English language acquisition programs were similar in results, and may vary by school capacity, teacher supports, and program details.  The achievement gap between ELs and native English speakers narrowed slightly during the same time frame, but cannot be attributed solely to Prop. 227.

However, other research from the same time period has found that even though ELs acquire English faster in English-immersion programs than various forms of bilingual programs, students are actually more likely to be deemed proficient in English if they spend more time in their native language through dual-language and bilingual programs.  Schools that only spend 1-3 years in a student’s native language, known as “transitional bilingual,” have very similar results as English immersion.  The most promising bilingual model is called “two-way dual-language,” in which native English speakers and ELs are in classes together, both learning English and the second language (typically Spanish).

Bilingual Ed

We also have to consider the benefits of fostering bilingualism and biliteracy.  Research shows that bilingual people may experience later onsets of dementia and have improved cognitive abilities.   The economy may flourish with greater opportunities for cross-national trade and understanding.  “Soft” student outcomes such as attendance and engagement are often shown to increase when they participate in bilingual programs.  Students and families may see more value in education and themselves as their language and culture are positively addressed.

The downside to some bilingual education programs is that they may segregate ELs from other students in special classes.  Also, they typically cost more, as schools often have to pay stipends or other incentives to attract bilingual teachers.

As is true for most educational programs, results depend on the inputs invested: teacher capacity and training, parental support, administrative supports, and equitable policies.  All of our students deserve to learn in an environment that values them and their cultures.

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