School & District Management

Bilingual Study Gets Good Marks From ‘What Works’

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 10, 2010 1 min read
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Remember the study released by Robert E. Slavin and team last April that compared the reading achievement of English-language learners in transitional bilingual education versus those in English immersion? I wrote about it in article entitled “Bilingual Education, Immersion Found to Work Equally Well.” The headline sums up the conclusion that Slavin, the director of Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, drew from the randomized-assignment study.

“People have been fighting for years and years about the language of instruction, thinking that it was either terribly important to teach in English the whole time or terribly important to teach in Spanish and then English. Both groups were wrong,” he told me in an interview at the time.

Well, the What Works Clearinghouse, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, took a look at the study and determined it was a “well-implemented randomized controlled trial.” That’s saying a lot because the clearinghouse has a reputation for having a very high bar in putting it’s stamp of approval on research.

I reported back in April that Slavin and his co-researchers concluded from their study that students in bilingual education had an edge in Spanish reading skills over students in English immersion in the early grades, while the reverse was true for English reading skills. But differences evened out by the 4th grade, with students scoring about the same in Spanish and in English.

The What Works Clearinghouse highlights nuances in the findings.

Here’s what the clearinghouse said about students who had reached 4th grade: “At this time, differences in English-reading skills between the groups were all statistically insignificant. Two of the four outcomes, though, showed large enough differences favoring structured English immersion that the WWC considered them noteworthy: the effect sizes were roughly equivalent to the skill difference between the 50th and 61st percentiles of English-reading achievement.”

So while the differences in performance were “statistically insignificant,” they were “noteworthy.”

The clearinghouse looked only at English-reading performance in the study, not Spanish-reading performance.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.