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How much do you know about bilingual education? Truths and misconceptions from the experts

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | September 25, 2017

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A mother and son at a Families in Schools’ literacy event earlier this year. (Courtesy: Families in Schools)

Bilingual education is making a comeback in California, and one reason is research that proved its benefits, Latino education experts say.

At a recent conference of Spanish-language journalists from across the country, panelists including a UCLA researcher laid out how far bilingual education has come over the last two decades.

During a panel discussion on “Bilingual education: Where policy and practice coincide,” researchers and experts clarified misconceptions and summarized what research has found about this educational model in the last 20 years. The panelists included Patricia Gándara, co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, David Nieto, executive director and assistant research professor of the BUENO Center at the University of Colorado, and Eva Pacheco, executive director of San Diego’s EJE Academies Charter Schools that offer dual-immersion language programs in elementary and middle school.

They spoke earlier this month in Anaheim at the Education Writers Association’s fourth annual Spanish Language Media Convening, “Latino Education in the Trump Era.” They discussed bilingual education plus topics such as the end of DACA, school vouchers, and charter schools. More on the conference, including stories of DACA Dreamers and their experiences, can be found here.

The model of bilingual education requires that 50 percent of the students in a class speak English as a first language while the half do not. The goal is for students to become fully bilingual and bi-literate in both languages, learning at a gradual pace.

Here are highlights from the panelists on bilingual education:

  • In California, the 1998 passage of Proposition 227 caused a dramatic reduction of bilingual teachers. By 2015 the number of candidates to become bilingual teachers had declined by two-thirds.
  • But now bilingual education is flourishing, as a new California law provides for the growth of bilingual and multilingual programs in schools across the state. In November, Californians approved Proposition 58, repealing Proposition 227 that had mandated that all schools provide instruction in English only, unless parents chose otherwise. The new law also brings more flexibility for schools to implement those programs.
  • Research indicates that a dual-language immersion or bilingual program is the most effective model to educate students who have limited English skills and closes the achievement gaps between English learners and their peers over the long term.
  • California has more than 1.4 million students classified as English learners, and most speak Spanish as their first language. Currently, about 5 percent of California public schools offer dual-immersion or bilingual programs.
  • Prohibitions on bilingual education in states like Massachusetts, Arizona, and California caused more students to drop out and some English-language learners to be slotted as special needs students just because they weren’t fluent in English. It was even widely believed that students who didn’t speak English fluently couldn’t learn.
  • Research done over time shows that students in dual-immersion language programs or bilingual education have even surpassed their peers in state test scores in English language arts.
  • Students in bilingual education are more likely to attend a four-year college or university.
  • The only difference between dual-language immersion programs and bilingual education is the terms. Being bilingual used to be perceived as “not speaking English correctly,” so it was replaced by “dual language.”

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