Is bilingual education worth bringing back?

California reconsiders bilingual education

A lot has changed since 1998, when Proposition 227 all but wiped out bilingual instruction in California public schools. The matter is due for reconsideration; a bill that passed the state Senate last week would allow that to happen.

SB 1174, by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), would place a measure on the November 2016 ballot to repeal Proposition 227 and allow local school districts to decide whether they want to bring back bilingual education rather than continue with the current system, which aims to move students toward full-time English use as quickly as possible.

Over the last 16 years, academic research has largely found that good bilingual programs are just as effective at teaching English skills, and often slightly better at it, than classes that immerse students in English. Along the way, they also teach students literacy in their native language.

Another reason to consider bilingual education: Shortly after Proposition 227 passed, testing and accountability requirements were imposed on schools. The academic skills of students, including those who aren't fluent in English, are now measured every year. That means that if bilingual education is failing students, that failure will become clear quickly, and schools will face potential disciplinary measures if they don't fix the problem.

A third factor: The globalization of the economy means that bilingualism confers a significant advantage in the work world.

Yet there were good reasons Proposition 227 passed. Bilingual education is more expensive. The state suffered continual shortages of qualified bilingual teachers. Worse, bilingual education was often poorly done. It's important to consider the academic studies that have shown slightly better results for bilingual classes, but remember that those studies involved top-notch programs with outstanding teachers. California's public schools seldom came close to the model, and before Proposition 227, thousands of students were handed diplomas without ever having mastered English.

To persuade voters, supporters of bilingual education will have to demonstrate that they can overcome these obstacles.

Dual immersion programs, a subset of bilingual education in which students from different language backgrounds study in two languages, gaining fluency in both, have often succeeded and are increasingly popular. Such programs exist in California, but they have been small and have involved populations of motivated parents and students. Bringing them up to scale so that they work statewide might be difficult.

These are debates worth having, and SB 1174 would provide the forum for them.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times