School & District Management

Bilingual Ed. Critic’s Research Sparking Debate

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 06, 2002 5 min read
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Christine H. Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University, is a lone wolf among researchers who study schooling for English-language learners.

Download Ms. Rossell’s research report, “Dismantling Bilingual Education, Implementing English Immersion: The California Initiative,” from her site. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

She takes the unpopular stance among academics that English immersion is more effective than bilingual education, something that she’s found in her research, which is often cited by proponents of English immersion.

“It’s always me against the world,” the 57-year-old researcher said in an interview last week. She said she was once given nasty looks and hissed at while speaking on a panel at an American Educational Research Association conference.

Language- acquisition researchers have tended to call for the preservation of bilingual education in states where it has come under attack.

By contrast, Ms. Rossell has accepted a position with English for the Children, the organization headed by California businessman Ron K. Unz, who aims to rid the nation of bilingual education. Ms. Rossell is a co-chair of the English for the Children campaign to get an anti-bilingual-education measure, similar to ones already passed in California and Arizona, on the state ballot in Massachusetts next November.

So it was with considerable interest that people engaged in the national debate over bilingual education read and commented last week on a new study by Ms. Rossell.

The study, “Dismantling Bilingual Education, Implementing English Immersion: The California Initiative,” reports that school districts have inconsistently carried out Proposition 227, the ballot measure approved by California voters in 1998 that aimed to replace bilingual education with an immersion approach.

“Schools have implemented a lot of Proposition 227, but they’ve also subverted a lot of it,” Ms. Rossell said.

She based her conclusions on data from the California Department of Education and visits to several districts with large concentrations of immigrant students, including public schools in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Varying Interpretations

The ballot proposition called for “sheltered English immersion” programs “not normally intended to exceed one year” to be the presumed method of teaching immigrant children. Parents are permitted to seek waivers to place their children in an alternative program, such as bilingual education.

Districts have skirted the law, Ms. Rossell contends in her study, by selecting children for bilingual education and then trying to get parents to sign waivers after the fact; by including Spanish-literacy lessons as part of English-immersion classes; by permitting parents to submit waivers by mail rather than in person; and by placing students in mainstream classes without giving them any special help at all.

In addition, Ms. Rossell concluded from an analysis of districts’ language-testing practices that their standards for English-language learners to test out of English immersion were too high. As a result, she wrote, “there is a danger that large numbers of children will remain in a special program they no longer need for their entire elementary school career.”

She argues that Proposition 227 should be changed to require that students be moved out of English-immersion programs into mainstream classes after a year, and that students leave bilingual education programs after two years.

Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, which opposes bilingual education, said he was particularly concerned about Ms. Rossell’s findings that districts are ignoring some procedures for parent waivers, an area in which he believes the California law is clear.

It’s not a good idea for teachers or administrators to initiate waivers, he said, and “it’s contrary to the language of the law.”

At the same time, Mr. Soifer acknowledged that the law lacks clarity in some areas. “It’s become evident that a thoughtful strategy for English-language learners involves elements that might be beyond the law,” he said.

Study Called Shallow

While Mr. Soifer characterized Ms. Rossell’s study as “the most thoughtful and comprehensive academic study to date on the progress of English- learners in California since Proposition 227,” two language-acquisition researchers ripped it apart.

“It really isn’t an in-depth analysis of the issues,” said J. David Ramírez, the executive director for the Center for Language-Minority Education and Research, who wrote an often-cited study in 1991 that showed students in bilingual education had higher achievement than students in English-only programs. Ms. Rossell “consistently raises issues that the study doesn’t really address,” he contended. “She’s trying to sell some ideology and some particular viewpoints here.”

For example, he said, Ms. Rossell’s study says that no student should stay in a structured-English program for longer than a year. “What’s supposed to happen after that?” Mr. Ramírez said. “There’s no research showing that kids can learn English as a second language in one year.”

The study contains “the things she’s been saying forever and are still somewhat questionable, and she persists in saying them,” said Catherine Snow, an education professor at Harvard University. For instance, Ms. Rossell generalizes that only Spanish-speaking students are provided with bilingual education in California when in fact, said Ms. Snow, many students who speak other languages also receive bilingual education.

Ms. Rossell responded that she hasn’t come across any youngsters other than Spanish- speaking students who are taught with the bilingual education model championed by many academics, in which students are taught literacy first in their native language and then in English. It’s been her experience, she said, that students with native languages other than Spanish learn English literacy first and receive literacy lessons in their native languages for enrichment.

Ms. Rossell’s findings differ in some respects from those of an ongoing, five-year evaluation by the American Institutes of Research in Palo Alto, Calif., that is examining the implementation of Proposition 227.

While Ms. Rossell came across administrators or teachers who had strongly promoted waivers to parents, for example, AIR researchers found that most parents had no knowledge of such waivers, according to Thomas B. Parrish, the managing research scientist for AIR.

Mr. Parrish said the language of Proposition 227 should be made clearer. “What English immersion is should be clarified—what’s allowed and what’s not allowed,” he said. “The notion that all supplemental services would be cut off after a year doesn’t make sense. All of that is unclear right now.”

Mr. Unz, the initiative’s organizer, “had this image that students would go off and learn English for a year, and then go back and learn English with everyone else,” Mr. Parrish added. “I don’t see that happening. Either students are integrated almost immediately, or they are in separate tracks for four or five years.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Ed. Critic’s Research Sparking Debate


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