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Ten-Year Anniversary of Proposition 227

The Economist marks the 10-year anniversary of Proposition 227, a ballot measure approved by voters in California that curtailed bilingual education, with a June 5 article reported from Santa Ana, Calif. "Before 1998 many poor immigrant children in California received a dismal education informed by wrong-headed principles," the article says. "They now just suffer from a dismal education."

But, in my view, the examples that are given in the article about how English-learners received a poor-quality education when bilingual education was the default method in California have more to do with implementation of the method than its "principles." For example, the article says that prior to passage of Proposition 227, "some 400,000 Californian children were shunted into classes where they heard as little as 30 minutes of English each day," implying they should have been getting more instruction in English. (It was still only a third of English-learners that were receiving bilingual education in California even then.)

A strong message in the article is that factors such as parental involvement, teachers having high expectations, and strong management of schools have more to do with the success of English-learners than do the kind of methods teachers use with them. That message jibes with the conclusion of a five-year study of Prop. 227's impact on student achievement: The study found no conclusive evidence that one instructional approach was more effective for California's English-learners than another.

But Russell W. Rumberger, the director of the Linguistic Minority Research Institute, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently presented preliminary research findings at a meeting in Sacramento that raised some questions about at least one instructional alternative to bilingual education.

He found that the three states that have passed ballot measures to get rid of bilingual education have greater gaps in achievement between English-learners and non-English-learners in 4th grade math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than do states such as Texas and New Mexico that require bilingual education. The three states that greatly reduced bilingual education—Arizona, Massachusetts, and California—replaced it with a method known as "structured English immersion." Mr. Rumberger's findings may suggest that structured English immersion, or its implementation, has some weaknesses.

I marked the 10-year anniversary of Prop. 227 by reporting on that meeting in Sacramento, where a number of researchers presented findings about the impact of anti-bilingual-education measures on ELLs in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts.

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