The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Horne v. Flores, a case concerning English-language learners in Arizona, touches on a lot of the big questions that educators of these students have been discussing for decades. (Find my EdWeek article about the ruling here.) Which is better, a bilingual education or English-only approach? What are the best measures for telling if ELLs are making progress? What are the components of a solid program for ELLs? What’s the relationship between funding and effectiveness of programs? Where should the bar be set for determining if ELLs have made sufficient progress?
It’s interesting to see some of the language that the justices of the highest court of the land have used to frame issues concerning ELLs.
For example, Justice Samuel J. Alito Jr. sums up the decades-old debate about English-only versus bilingual education methods by writing, “Research on ELL instruction indicates there is documented, academic support for the view that [structured English immersion] is significantly more effective than bilingual education.” (page 24)
Phil Kent, a board member of ProEnglish, writes a commentary in the Washington Times saying Justice Alito is on the mark with this statement. But the Blog for Arizona.com makes the point that Justice Alito is overlooking the fact that other evidence shows structured English immersion, the method used in Arizona, is not superior to bilingual education. And Carlos Guerra, in a column in the San Antonio Express-News, observes that in his dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer shows that Justice Alito seemed to “cherry pick” the research.
Justice Alito also questions where the bar should be set for academic progress of ELLs to determine if programs are effective enough to comply with federal civil rights law. He says that equalization of the results between native and non-native speakers on tests administered in English is “a worthy goal, to be sure, but one that may be exceedingly difficult to achieve, especially for older ELL students.” (page 31).
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer makes a statement (on page 13) about why it costs more for schools to educate ELLs than other students:
English-learning students, after all, not only require the instruction in "academic content areas" like math and science that "typical" students require, but they also need to increase their proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing English. This language-acquisition instruction requires particular textbooks and other instructional materials, teachers trained in the school's chosen method for teaching English, special assessment tests, and tutoring and other individualized instruction—all of which [are] resources [that] cost money.
As coverage in the mainstream media has noted, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the lower courts to consider four factors that the court contends were not properly examined. Those factors are a change in methodology for teaching ELLs, enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, an increase in funding for ELL programs in Arizona, and progress that has been made with ELL programs in the Nogales school district, which is where the case originated. Media outlets that reported on the Supreme Court ruling include the Arizona Republic, NPR, and the New York Times.
A commentary in the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., commends the Nogales school district for taking action to improve programs for ELLs on its own while the case languished in the federal courts.
I’m expecting that how one measures the progress of ELLs and what is considered to be adequate progress will be central issues as this case continues to be argued in the courts. Also the old debate of which is better, bilingual education or English-only methods, is sure to surface as well.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.