- 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
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 to English.
However, critics of bilingual education and even some supporters raised questions about
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
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
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 untested.
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
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
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 U.S. cities.
"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 median percentile.
Results of Stanford 9 English Test, Grade 5
(Groups): Bilingual, ELDP and Districtwide
- Copyright Los Angeles Times