The Dismissive Period: 1980s-Present
Ovando (2003) states that the battle against bilingual education began to gain momentum in the 1980s. Political activist groups such as U.S. English, English Only, and English First appeared on the scene and campaigned vigorously against bilingual education. The debate over bilingual education reached a climax when California voters decided in 1998, through passage of Proposition 227, that English should be the primary medium of instruction for language minority students. Proposition 227 mandates that ELs be taught “overwhelmingly in English” in Structured English Immersion (SEI) classes and then transferred to a mainstream English-only classroom.
Voters in Arizona and Massachusetts approved similar measures in 2000 and in 2002 respectively. Anti-bilingual education activists claimed that children were staying too long in bilingual programs, which prevented them from learning the English they needed to succeed in school. However, student performance data from these states since the implementation of the anti-bilingual education laws show that ELs are not learning English any faster than before the policies went into effect. Likewise, the academic achievement gaps between ELs and English speakers in these states remain largely unchanged.
The passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 had an almost immediate effect of reducing the number of students receiving bilingual instruction in California from 29% to 8% (Gandara et al., 2010). Wentworth et al. (2010) used five years of California Standards Test data (from 2003 to 2007) to examine Proposition 227’s impact on EL achievement. They report that there has been no discernible closing of the achievement gaps between ELs and English speakers, and found some evidence that the first cohort of students studied may have been hurt (as shown in their lower test scores) from having bilingual education abruptly pulled from their instruction following the passage of the legislation.
In Arizona, the passage of Proposition 203 in 2000 resulted in a sharp drop in enrollment in bilingual education programs. For example, in 1997, 32% of
Arizona’s ELs were enrolled in bilingual education programs, but in 2004, only 5% were (Mahoney et al., 2010). Using student scores on SAT-9, a standardized test that reflects national curriculum content standards, Mahoney et al. (2010) compared the academic achievement among reclassified ELs—ELs that have tested at proficient levels on an English language exam and no longer receive ESL instruction—before the passage of Proposition 203 (1997-2000) to the academic achievement among similar students after the passage of the proposition (2001-2004). They found that student gains before and after Proposition 203 were nearly identical for ELs and English speakers. In other words, Proposition 203 did little to close the achievement gaps between the two groups.
When Mahoney et al. (2010) examined post-Proposition 203 student scores for Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS), an annual test designed to measure Arizona’s content standards, they found that while there were large gains for third-grade reclassified ELs, there was a dramatic decline in achievement for fifth- and eighth-grade reclassified ELs. The authors point out that responding to the demands of the regular school curriculum becomes increasingly difficult as children advance through the grades, as early deficits resulting from incomprehensible instruction make it harder for students to keep up. This result is confirmed by other large-scale investigations which found that EL children enrolled in English-only programs often do well initially, but do less well in later years (e.g., Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, & Pasta, 1991).
In Massachusetts, the passage of Referendum Question 2 replaced a wide-ranging set of bilingual programs with SEI. Examining four years of data immediately following the passage of Question 2, Uriarte et al. (2010) found that there were substantial decreases in the identification of students who, because of limited English proficiency, required programs for ELs. Instead, enrollments of ELs in special education increased during the same period. The authors point out that while proponents of Question 2 promised more rapid acquisition of English for ELs in Massachusetts and a rise in academic achievement and a narrowing of the achievement gap, pass rates on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) actually declined for ELs in English language arts and math, and the improvements in pass rates, when found, were smaller than those for other groups. The achievement gaps in both math and English language acquisition, but especially in math, widened between ELs and students in general education. The authors also show that while dropout rates generally increased in Boston public schools between 2003 and 2006, the magnitude of the increase among ELs was significantly larger than that among other student groups.
Overall, ELs in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts are doing worse academically than their peers in states without restrictive language policies.
Using data from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only ongoing national assessment that measures what students in grades 4, 8, and 12 know and can do in several content areas, Rumberger & Tran (2010) examined the achievement gap between ELs and English speakers among states across four areas—reading and math in grades 4 and 8. They found that states with restrictive language policies (California, Arizona, and Massachusetts) tended to have larger achievement gaps than those without such policies (Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas), especially in grade 4.
All of these findings confirm what we know from the past 40 years’ research on immigrant education—primary language instruction, or instruction in the primary and second languages simultaneously, results in superior outcomes compared to English-only instruction in improving the English language development of language minority children (August, Goldenberg, & Rueda, 2010). Most research on positive models of immigrant education points to the importance of children maintaining the ability to function in their heritage culture as they adapt to a new one (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Similarly, development of English language proficiency depends on the overall quality of the programs for ELs and their integration into a healthy school environment, as well as children’s prior schooling and language resources in the family (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001; Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008).
With the passage of NCLB in 2002, federal policy for language minority students changed significantly. Heralded as an unprecedented, bi-partisan effort to improve every child’s academic performance and increase school accountability, NCLB requires annual testing of all students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8. NCLB requires each state to set academic achievement benchmarks for adequate yearly progress (AYP) so that by school year 2013/14, all students are reading and doing mathematics at grade level. Under NCLB, schools are required to report the scores of different subgroups of students separately. This disaggregation of test scores ensures that the traditionally underperforming students—those who tend to be poor and of minority backgrounds—are no longer concealed in school aggregates.
While NCLB has the potential to close the achievement gap between minority and poor students and their mainstream peers by holding schools accountable for the academic progress of all categories of students including English learners, it does not encourage the development of languages other than English. With an exclusive focus on English, NCLB requires schools to teach language minority students English and move them into mainstream English-only classrooms as quickly as possible. Unlike previous legislations, NCLB assigns little value to the bilingual abilities of language minority children (see also Crawford, 2004; Shin, 2006).
Another problem with NCLB is its heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing and rapid sink or swim English immersion (Menken, 2008; Wright, 2007). Many schools have adopted scripted one-size-fits-all curricular programs which consume large amounts of instructional time, leaving less time for ESL and content area instruction that is tailored to the English proficiency and literacy levels of individual students (Wright, 2005). Many argue that far from increasing the ability of public schools to serve poor and minority children, NCLB punishes these students by driving their schools to focus on testing and test preparation (Meier & Wood, 2004).
Much remains to be seen as to how EL education will be shaped at the national level in the years to come. But one thing is for certain—educating ELs will be an increasingly critical issue for local, state, and federal governments as the nation undergoes a significant demographic shift. Improving the educational outcomes for ELs will “contribute to the nation’s longer-term health by building the human capital necessary for continued economic growth and democratic participation” (Working Group on ELL Policy, 2010). All students, including ELs, must have access to high-quality curriculum and instruction, effective teachers, and supportive school environment to be successful. They must also receive specific help in mastering the language of schooling. This is the topic of the next section.