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Are "English-only" schools the best way to learn? New research says no

Dec 3, 2014

The Academy of the Americas in southwest Detroit offers one of the few dual immersion programs in Michigan.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

More than 95,000 children in Michigan are considered "English language learners." It’s up to schools to get those students to learn English as quickly as possible, and most Michigan districts accomplish that by immersing students in English-only classrooms. 

But is that the best approach? New research suggests it's not.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to teach English to non-native speakers: You can throw them in the deep end of a pool, so to speak, and put them in a classroom where it’s all English all the time, or – to stick with the water metaphor – you could start students out in the shallow end, let them dip their toes in, learn to tread water, and eventually work their way over to the deep end. 

The former approach is English immersion, the latter approach is a bilingual one. 

(You can read the official Michigan Department of Education descriptions for bilingual and immersion programs here.)

There are only a handful of Spanish/English dual immersion programs across Michigan. (The state spends $1.2 million on bilingual programs, down from roughly $4 million in the 1990s.) Students enter kindergarten speaking mostly Spanish in the classroom and with each grade they add more English into the mix. By the time they reach fifth grade, 50% of the day is taught in Spanish, 50% in English.   

Now, bilingual education isn’t new. It’s been around since the '70s, but it’s still a hot-button issue. Here's a quick summary of the bilingual controversy from the folks at the online news site, Education World:

But critics of bilingual education advocate for the elimination of what they view as costly and ineffective multilingual policies. The politically charged issue of whether to mandate an official U.S. language clouds the academic questions surrounding bilingual programs. 

Focusing on academic issues are the less strident but still determined critics who say many non-native English speakers are graduating from school systems with poor reading skills in both English and their native language. They cite low test scores to support their argument.

Backers of bilingual programs defend them by arguing that becoming proficient in any second language takes longer than one or two years. They also point to the shortage of well-qualified, fully bilingual teachers. The problem with bilingual programs, they say, often lies in the teaching, not the curriculum. They acknowledge programs could be improved by the hiring more teachers who are fully qualified. Students should not, they admit, remain in special bilingual programs longer than really necessary. 

There’s a small but growing body of research that shows improved English proficiency with bilingual programs. Researcher Ilana Umansky has just released a new study to add to the mix. She and her colleague, Sean Reardon at Stanford University, used long-term data from from a large, urban school district in California, where lots of students speak Spanish.  

Here's what they found. 

"Students who are in an English-only setting make faster, early progress towards English proficiency and academic benchmarks," explains Umansky, "but once they reach middle school, they begin to slow down."

At Academy of the Americas, students enter Kindergarten speaking mostly Spanish in class. By the time they reach 5th grade, class instruction is split 50/50 between English and Spanish.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

As for English language learners in bilingual programs? They learn English more slowly, but surpass their counterparts in academic performance by the time they reach high school. 

"What we’re finding," says Umansky, "is taking longer to learn English isn’t a bad thing ... that you can take a little longer but have eventually better outcomes both in terms of English proficiency and in terms of academic outcomes."

Tortoise, meet hare. 

It’s up to school districts to decide which kind of program they want to use to help non-native children learn English, and there’s one obvious drawback to learning English as a tortoise’s pace: early standardized test scores suffer. For schools thinking about using bilingual programs, that could be a hard sell considering a school’s ranking is based on standardized test scores

And then there's the question of finding high-quality, bilingual teachers to staff the programs. Nicholas Brown, the principal at Academy of the Americas, says he is having a hard time finding bilingual teachers "who have academic language in Spanish to teach math, science, and social studies in higher grades."

The Academy is currently pre-K through ninth grade, and the plan is to add a new grade each year. There are only three colleges in Michigan that offer bilingual endorsements: Aquinas College, Calvin College, and Wayne State University, so Brown says the pool from which he can recruit teachers is relatively small. He has asked school district officials to start recruiting bilingual teachers from Puerto Rico, Texas and California to fill the classrooms. 

Shereen Tabrizi heads up bilingual programming for the Michigan Department of Education. She says the state is currently tracking students in the various bilingual programs across the state to "study if such approaches are making a stronger impact on ... achievement" for English learners; to see if, in fact, slow and steady really does win the English language race.