Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/305/oped/Follow_the_evidence_on_English_immersion+.shtml

Follow the evidence on English immersion

By Scot Lehigh, 11/1/2002

ALWAYS A SLY political wit, Bill Clinton was in fine form when he came to the Boston Teachers Union Hall on Oct. 10.

As he rallied the crowd to the Democratic cause, Clinton turned puckishly self-parodying.

Skewering the GOP for decisions driven by ideology, the former president deadpanned: ''We govern by evidence. You have to look at the evidence.'' That was as deliciously impish as anything I'd encountered since the day back in 1997 when House Speaker Tom Finneran presented a departing Bill Weld with a farewell bottle of vintage Dom Perignon, only to have Weld quip, ''I'm not a drinking man.''

Then, as I chuckled alone at Clinton's joke, it slowly dawned on me that he actually meant to be taken seriously. And, further, that the faithful nodding their head in solemn agreement seemed to believe it as well.

Never mind the implacable opposition of the teachers unions to the MCAS despite clear evidence that the standards movement has improved public education in Massachusetts. Or their unrelenting hostility to charter schools despite the
impressive performance of those innovative academies.

Still, let's pretend for a moment that Clinton's claim actually was the Democratic ideal. What, then, would Democrats be saying this year about Question 2, the ballot initiative that proposes replacing bilingual education with English immersion?

They certainly wouldn't be trying to sow fears that Question 2 will mean an explosion of lawsuits against teachers if they utter a sentence or two of Spanish in the classroom. In fact, the initiative allows for such legal action only if teachers
willfully and repeatedly subvert its English immersion intent. And they'd know that in California, where a similar initiative passed in 1998, there have been no such lawsuits against teachers.

They might read the lengthy report that nationally noted expert Christine Rossell, professor of political science at Boston University, and Keith Baker, a social science researcher, did of the statistically valid analyses of bilingual education

Their detailed look found that the evidence doesn't support the idea that traditional bilingual education is a superior method of instruction. Rather, it suggests that structured immersion is just as effective for teaching language, somewhat more effective for math, and clearly better for reading.

They might look at scores from California, where tests show students in English immersion programs are outperforming those still in bilingual education at virtually every grade level.

And if they are simply too impatient to wade through the careful language of social policy research or to crunch the test score data? Well, they might talk to Ken Noonan, superintendent of Oceanside, Calif., where 6,000 of the 22,000 students need English language help each year.

Noonan is founding president of the California Association for Bilingual Education and was an ardent foe of the 1998 California ballot question that started the English immersion movement. When it passed, he and his teachers set out trepidatiously on the new course. But four months into the new approach, former bilingual teachers started calling to tell Noonan how impressively their students were doing in immersion classes.

''By the end of the year, I was amazed at how well the kids were doing, and when the test scores came out at the end of the year, I was shocked that they were so good,'' he said.

After two years, second-grade reading scores for English learners went from the 13th percentile to the 32 d percentile, a huge jump. Math scores were even better. The gains were smaller, but still significant, in higher grades.

So what does Noonan, once a confirmed believer in bilingual education, say now?

''I have actually become a convert to English immersion,'' he says. ''It works better, it is easier on kids, and it gets them into the mainstream faster.''

Ideologically blinkered bilingual advocates will no doubt call Noonan a turncoat (or worse).

But here's what the Oceanside superintendent actually is: Someone who looked beyond ideology to consider the actual evidence. That is, someone who has done exactly what Clinton has urged Massachusetts Democrats to do. If Democrats
were truly to follow either Noonan's example or Clinton's advice, they'd troop to the polls and vote yes on Question 2.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 11/1/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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