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Debating bilingual education, English immersion, and the election


At the New York Times blog Campaign Stops this week, two education scholars are debating the best policies for English Language Learners.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, argues that research backs up bilingual programs, which provide instruction in both English and the child’s native language:

Even a Bush administration review of controlled classroom experiments — seeking to identify what works in language teaching — found stronger achievement gains for students enrolled in quality bilingual programs, compared with English-immersion classrooms. Yet a skilled bilingual teacher is crucial, one who understands the knowledge and social norms that children acquire at home, and how to build from the first language to advance rich oral language and then written literacy. It’s a no-brainer for students attending schools in Europe and East Asia.

Fuller notes that Barack Obama favors transitional bilingual programs, which aim to move children to English-only instruction as quickly as possible, but provide support in the native language along the way. This is different from dual language programs, which promote written and oral fluency in both languages. Of course, as commenters at the Campaign Stops blog point out, the quality and language background of the teacher matters immensely if either type of bilingual program is to work, and in schools with a wide range of native languages spoken, bilingual instruction may not be realistic.

Fuller adds that other Obama proposals, like quality preschool programs and recruitment of excellent teachers, can also help close the achievement gap for these students. He emphasizes the importance of education for Hispanic voters in a number of swing states, and writes that John McCain has had “little to say to Hispanic parents” about education.

In response, Lance T. Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, uses Sixth Street Prep, a high-achieving southern California charter school, as anecdotal evidence that English immersion is better for students:

Sixth Street emphasizes review and practice, constant assessment of skills and a no-excuses attitude. Furthermore, and here’s where Mr. Obama should take note, according to Linda Mikels, Sixth Street’s principal, the school’s instructional approach for English learners is full immersion. English immersion emphasizes the near-exclusive use of English in content instruction. … It’s working, she observed, it’s working for us.


Izumi accuses Obama of trivializing the issue when he said in a July public appearance, “You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.” Here’s Obama’s full statement, and Salon provides even more context:

Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.

Will they learn English? Research by the Pew Hispanic Center research suggests they will. A 2007 article reported that 88% of adult children of Hispanic immigrants speak English fluently, and the number rises to 94% in the third generation. Only 23% of first-generation Hispanic immigrants speak English fluently, but those who arrived as children (only about 4% of new arrivals, according to a different Pew report) are more likely to achieve fluency, according to the study. So, while there is clearly much more work to be done — educators are not worried only about English fluency, but also mastery of grade-level content knowledge, high school graduation, and access to college education — this calls into question the ubiquitous anecdotes about families where English is never learned.