Prop. 227 Makes Instruction Less Consistent, Study Says

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 03, 2000 4 min read

Proposition 227, the 1998 California ballot initiative that ended most bilingual education programs in the state, has made instruction for English- language learners even more inconsistent than it was before, University of California researchers conclude in a study released last week.

Depending on what a particular teacher might think about the best way to teach such children or how well the teacher is trained, one student might encounter a completely different approach to education than another student—even in the same district or school, the researchers say.


Read “The Initial Impact of Proposition 227 on the Instruction of English Learners” online, from the Linguistic Minority Research Institute of the University of California.

“A serious problem has been made worse,” the authors argue in a paper published by the Linguistic Minority Research Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, based on a study of 16 California districts during the first year after Proposition 227’s passage. “Wise education policy would address the problem of inconsistency of instruction before imposing top-down mandates that have the effect of increasing variation in practice.”

Interpretations Differ

The researchers say nearly all programs for students learning English have traditionally been found by evaluators to be “fragmented and piecemeal.” And Proposition 227, in their opinion, exacerbates the problem.

The ballot measure required that most bilingual education programs in California’s public schools be replaced by one-year English-immersion programs. Districts could continue to operate bilingual education programs only through a waiver process, in which parents requested that their children not be placed in an English-immersion program. (“Calif.'s Year on the Bilingual Battleground,” June 2, 1999.)

As a result of its passage, the percentage of English-language learners in California schools who were enrolled in bilingual education dropped from 29 percent to 12 percent by the end of the first year of implementation, according to the state education department.

But the study, “The Initial Impact of Proposition 227 on the Instruction of English Learners,” describes some more nuanced effects of Proposition 227. Interpretations varied greatly among the 16 districts studied on how much instruction in a student’s native language was allowed under the new law. Some administrators permitted just less than half of an English-immersion class to be taught in a foreign language, while others forbade any instruction at all in a child’s primary language.

So, too, did interpretations of the parent-waiver process differ among districts, according to the study. Districts that were strong advocates of bilingual education programs tended to solicit waivers from parents to keep the programs going, while other districts stalled the process of obtaining waivers or didn’t inform parents at all of their rights to seek them.

Statewide, 67 percent of districts formally notified parents of their rights to the waiver process. The districts with weaker commitments to bilingual education typically closed down their programs.

None of the districts studied provided systematic training for teachers to make the transition from one kind of instruction to another—say, from teaching reading in Spanish to reading in English. In interviews with researchers, teachers complained they lacked materials for the new English-immersion classes, as their administrators told them not to use textbooks in students’ native languages but didn’t replace them with anything else.

‘Exacerbating a Problem’

Collectively, the effects of Proposition 227 have contributed to “massive inconsistency in instruction for children,” Patricia Gándara, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, and the lead researcher for the study, said in an interview last week.

“With everyone interpreting [Proposition 227] in every way that they do, ... I fear we are exacerbating a problem we knew was a very big problem before—and that is kids can’t count on having the same kind of instruction from one year to the next,” she said.

Ron K. Unz, the chairman of English for the Children, the organization that put Proposition 227 on the state ballot, acknowledged that “unfortunately” the measure had been implemented inconsistently. But he faulted activists who he said had encouraged school officials to get around the law, and “a lack of diligence” among officials in following it, rather than a lack of clarity in the law.

And he said he did not believe instruction was more inconsistent overall than when bilingual education programs were more prevalent.

“Was the initiative too loose in its language? Our opponents during the [Proposition 227] campaign attacked the initiative for being extremely rigid,” he said.

Mr. Unz doesn’t dispute some of the implementation problems found in the study.

But a lack of materials in English during the implementation of Proposition 227 shows only that teachers weren’t using enough English in classes before the measure passed, he suggested. “I think it’s heartening they’re talking about teaching English and buying English materials,” he said.

Jorge E. Amselle, the vice president for education at the Washington- based Center for Equal Opportunity, which supports the measure, said that while Proposition 227 might temporarily have increased the inconsistency in instruction for English-language learners, the problem would likely subside as more people became used to the new policy.

“You would expect to see inconsistency with any new program, particularly one that is somewhat controversial and one that faced so much resistance by so many school districts,” Mr. Amselle said.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2000 edition of Education Week as Prop. 227 Makes Instruction Less Consistent, Study Says