English Learners

A Kentucky Economist Looks at Bilingual Ed. in California

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 13, 2010 2 min read
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English-learners in 1st and 2nd grade participating in bilingual education programs in California score substantially lower on the state’s English-proficiency test than English-learners in other kinds of programs, according to a study by an economist from the University of Kentucky. But for students in grades 3-5, the same study found little difference in English proficiency between ELLs in bilingual education and other programs, though students in the other programs still had a bit of an edge over those in bilingual education on average in their English-proficiency test scores.

The researcher considered students to be in bilingual education if they received English-language development (often called “English as a second language” outside of California) and had academic subjects taught through the primary language. He considered students to be in other programs, which many educators would call “English immersion,” if students took English-language development classes, had ELD classes paired with sheltered classes where the English language has been modified to accommodate students’ limited proficiency, or had ELD classes paired with sheltered classes in which they received some support in their primary language.

In reading this study, published in Education Finance and Policy, a journal of the American Finance Association, I’m struck with how different its approach is from the one I just wrote about last week comparing bilingual education and English immersion, released by the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. Yet the findings in the two studies are somewhat similar. Both show that the English skills of English-learners in bilingual education lag behind those of other ELLs during the early grades, but the picture changes as students progress through the grades.

Too bad we don’t have a recent study that shows what happens with ELLs who participated in bilingual education vs. English immersion after 5th grade.

The Johns Hopkins researchers reported that English reading skills were the same for ELLs in early-exit transitional bilingual education and English immersion in six states, both using Success For All reading materials, by the 4th grade. The University of Kentucky researcher compared ELLs in different kinds of bilingual programs vs. different kinds of English-immersion programs in California. Students in the Johns Hopkins study numbered in the hundreds and were randomly assigned to bilingual education or English immersion. Students in the University of Kentucky study numbered half a million and were not randomly assigned.

In regard to the upper grades, Christopher Jepsen, the economist at the University of Kentucky who conducted the study on Calfornia’s ELLs, concluded, “Although these effects are sometimes statistically significant, their small size suggests fewer concerns about the negative consequences of bilingual education on English proficiency for older students.”

While the article about the study appearing in Education Finance and Policy seems to be available only to subscribers, you can download a discussion paper based on the same study from the University of Kentucky Center for Policy Research.

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