BILINGUAL EDUCATION'S 26-YEAR REIGN IN CALIFORNIA was supposed to end with the voters' passage of Proposition 227 in June 1998. The proposition declared:
All children in California public schools shall be taught
English by being taught in English. In particular, this shall
require that all children be placed in English-language classrooms.
Children who are English learners shall be educated
through sheltered English immersion during a temporary
transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.
Of course, there is often a disconnect between a law and its implementation, especially with an issue as controversial as bilingual education. State officials can subvert the law through interpretations that don't conform to its intent; school districts can change their policies without making genuine changes in curriculum; or teachers can ignore the mandates, closing their classroom doors and doing as they please.
What happened in the wake of Prop 227? The answer should be of interest in Massachusetts, which is currently implementing a similar proposition, and in other states contemplating ending bilingual education or otherwise considering how best to educate students whose native tongue is not English. My research reveals that resistance to the new law was, in many schools and districts, quite intense, indicating the depth of support for bilingual education among teachers and principals. Of course, such opposition was to be expected after state officials and interest groups spent the past few decades aggressively promoting bilingual education. Yet gradually the intent of the legislation has prevailed in most places, apparently to the benefit of English Learners, at least judging by test scores. To explain these findings, however, I need to begin with some fundamentals about a much misunderstood topic.
Bilingual Education Before Proposition 227 During the past 25 years, essentially three different kinds of instructional programs have existed for students with limited English proficiency, also called English Learners. The first is English as a Second Language (ESL) tutoring mixed with regular classroom instruction, wherein both English Learners and English-speaking students are taught in English in the same classroom for most of the day. English Learners receive their supplementary ESL tutoring in a pullout setting for anywhere from an hour a week to several hours a day. The second program is sheltered English immersion, which involves teaching in English to a classroom filled only with English Learners. If all the children speak one language, the teacher may also speak in that language occasionally to clarify or explain a concept, but the children learn to read and write in English and they receive math, science, social studies, and other subjects in English. Teachers of children who function poorly in English will initially spend most of the day teaching them to read and write in English. Gradually, however, other subjects are introduced. For children in 1st grade or higher, it is usually just a matter of months before much of the day is devoted to these other subjects.
In the third instructional program, the only one that meets the definition of bilingual education in the theoretical literature, students are taught initial literacy and subjects like math and science in their native tongue as they progress toward fluency in English. English is taught as a separate subject for about an hour a day initially, although there may be almost no English at all in kindergarten. The amount of English is typically increased over time, but students are not taught entirely in English until they are literate in their native tongue.
The facilitation theory underlying bilingual education as just defined has two parts. The "threshold" hypothesis states that there is a threshold level of linguistic competence in the native language that all children must attain in order to avoid cognitive disadvantages, while the "developmental interdependence" hypothesis holds that the development of skills in a second language is facilitated by skills already developed in learning the first language. …