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A Critique of Bilingual Education With Attitude

It's taken me a while to read and digest a critique by Heather Mac Donald of bilingual education in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Meanwhile, Joanne Jacobs posted a short excerpt from the 10-page essay and titled her post "Banning bilingual ed worked for kids." The post was promptly tweeted yesterday by Greg Toppo of USA Today.

Called "The Bilingual Ban That Worked," Mac Donald's essay aims to tear apart most arguments anyone would make, or has ever made, favoring bilingual education in schools. Mac Donald uses California as a case study, contending that Californians did the right thing by approving Proposition 227 back in 1998. That ballot measure greatly curtailed bilingual education in the state.

In my view, the essay doesn't have much new information; it does include some forceful language. Mac Donald writes, for example, that "the counterintuitive linguistic claims behind bilingual education were always a fig leaf covering a political agenda," and that Proposition 227 "swept away a misguided drag on assimilation and routed a once-powerful educrat interest group."

The essay reviews the crux of the arguments concerning whether Proposition 227 was good for students.

One can conclude that the dramatic cutback in bilingual education in California has been a success because test scores for ELLs (and Hispanics) have increased in the state since 1998. Or you can conclude it was a failure because the achievement gap between English-language learners and native-English speakers has widened since passage of Prop 227. Mac Donald is convinced that the rise in the test scores is more noteworthy than the increase in the achievement gap, and thus getting rid of bilingual education was the right way to go.

James Crawford, a longtime writer about ELLs and supporter of bilingual education, sent me the following response to Mac Donald's essay:

I did a quick check of [National Assessment of Educational Progress] data in which test-score inflation is not a factor. It was amazing to see how far behind California students are lagging.

On both 4th grade and 8th grade reading (2007), Hispanic students in California scored worse than their counterparts in all but one of the 50 states and DC. On 4th grade math (2009), they were tied for last place and in 8th grade math (2009), they held the bottom spot alone. Scores were significantly higher in TX, NY, and IL—states with large percentages of ELLs and proportionately more of them enrolled in bilingual education. CA also had significantly wider "achievement gaps" between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.

Norm Gold, who was a manager of programs for ELLs for the California Department of Education for 21 years (1979-2000) and is now a consultant for ELL programs through his firm, Norm Gold Associates, also responded to the essay. He sent me an e-mail saying Mac Donald "seems to prefer anecdotes, rather than evidence."

He wrote: "Mac Donald conveniently leaves out the compelling research summaries and meta-analyses ... from the last few years, all of which have concluded that bilingual education contributes to school success IN ENGLISH, or, at the very least, does no harm."

I think Mac Donald paints those in favor of bilingual education as more extreme than they are. OK, there are a few diehards who believe that every school must provide native-language support for ELLs. But most of the educators I have interviewed or met who support bilingual education also say that schools should be able to choose what approach to teaching ELLs works best in their school system, whether bilingual education or English-only instruction.

Gold, for instance, wrote in his e-mail: "I support districts doing work all in English as well as those providing bilingual instruction to some of their students."

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