Schools need more flexibility to meet needs
East Valley Tribune
November 20, 2005

Perspective, p. 102
- Jeff MacSwan is associate professor of education at Arizona State University.

Last month a survey,  based on 21 key education indicators, dubbed Arizona the “dumbest state.”  The survey considered a wide range of factors such as teacher/pupil ratio, school funding, how well students do in academic subjects, and teacher pay, ranking Arizona as the very worst-performing of all states.

Though not addressed by the survey, our state is also doing a terrible job educating its immigrant students.

About 15 percent of Arizona students are English learners, who are struggling to learn English at school in addition to the usual school subjects. And contrary to popular belief, most of these kids are here legally.

Current Arizona policy, Proposition 203, requires all English learners to be taught in English only, with no significant use of their native language, for a period “not normally intended to exceed one year.” The approach is known as structured English immersion.

Previously, a variety of approaches were used, as determined locally by school districts. Among these was bilingual education, a program then used for about 30 percent of students.

The bilingual approach used structured English methods to teach English, but taught school subjects such as math and science bilingually so students could keep up academically while learning English.

Ron Unz, the California millionaire and neoconservative activist who bankrolled the 2000 initiative, was widely criticized for misusing educational statistics. His interests were overtly political, and Unz appeared to be fixing the facts around the policy.

Indeed, Unz made remarkable promises in an effort to gain Arizonans’ support, including claiming that under Proposition 203 students “will learn English in a couple months” and that “there will be no Arizona children in English acquisition classes” within just a few years.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who campaigned against Republican incumbent Jaime Molera on a promise to “enforce” the English-only law, has made similar dramatic claims.

“I have been in a number of English immersion schools where at least 85 percent of the students become orally proficient in English in one year, and fully proficient in reading and writing within three years,” Horne wrote in an editorial.

Neither produced evidence to support their remarks.

However, a recent study by Arizona State University researchers, including myself, paints a very different picture. Indeed, it seems that the superintendent was almost exactly wrong.

The state’s own data show that 89 percent of immigrant students who tested nonproficient in 2003 failed to achieve English proficiency in 2004. The finding is very important given the theory behind Proposition 203. The immersion approach suggests that because kids learn English very fast, we don’t have to worry about them falling behind academically in a classroom where they can’t understand what the teacher is saying.

But the evidence suggests we should worry, because the policy appears to have a startling 89 percent failure rate.

The research community had warned of these potentially dismal results for a very long time. Before Unz’s anti-bilingual campaign, for example, the National Research Council, which was established nearly a century ago by the National Academy of Sciences to provide scientific advice to the federal government, had prepared two reports that concluded that bilingual education was an effective method of teaching immigrant children.

This year, Johns Hopkins University researchers conducted a comprehensive review of the scientific literature and found most comparison studies favored bilingual approaches over English immersion. While some studies found no difference between the two, none showed a significant advantage for immersion over bilingual education.

ASU researchers also recently synthesized the research literature regarding effective programs for English learners, using a statistical method known as meta-analysis. These researchers similarly concluded that bilingual education tended to be more effective at raising children’s test scores, on tests taken in English, than did English immersion.

A related study focused only on Arizona studies and conducted by the same researchers found even stronger advantages for bilingual education over English immersion.

Given these facts, one would expect a rational state policy to permit a variety of approaches, including immersion and bilingual education, among others, selected by locally elected school boards.

Instead, Arizona is fettered with an ideologically driven one-size-fits all language education policy, now infamously the most restrictive in the nation. The ideological nature of policy is seen in the sources supporters use in defense of their position.

Rather than relying on scientific research, the English-only advocates turn to politically charged organizations like the Hoover Institute and the Lexington Institute, whose neoconservative credentials are usually carefully hidden from readers’ view.

Arizona needs an effective education policy for English learners ­ one that seeks positive results, unites our diverse community and looks to sound information to build effective policy, with the result that all immigrant children become proficient in English and also develop academically.