Proposition 58 – Removing Disincentives For Bi-Lingual Education; Mandating Parent & Community Input
Proposition 58 is a legislature-backed initiative aimed at rolling back some of the provisions of California’s Proposition 227 commonly known as the “English Only” initiative. Because 227 was passed in 1998 as a proposition it can only be changed through the same process. We found some summaries a bit misleading; here is what the Proposition actually does:
- Preserves requirement that public schools ensure students become proficient in English.
- Requires school districts to solicit parent and community input in developing language acquisition programs to ensure English acquisition as rapidly and effectively as possible.
- Requires that school districts provide students with limited English proficiency the option to be taught English nearly all in English.
- Authorizes school districts to establish dual‐language immersion programs for both native and non‐native English speakers.
- Allows parents/legal guardians of students to select an available language acquisition program that best suits their child.
We were never fans of Proposition 227, so we thought the decision on Prop. 58 would be easy. While its opponents are few, we were surprised to find the San Jose Mercury News, which opposed Proposition 227 in 1998 currently opposing Prop 58. The Merc correctly notes that Proposition 227 was not strictly speaking an “English Only” law, but rather it created bureaucratic hoops that parents and administrators needed to evade in order to allow for any bi-lingual education. Those burdens caused the number of students in bi-lingual education to drop from 30% in 1998 to 5% today. The primary reason cited for opposing Proposition 58 is that the fears of opponents of Proposition 227 were not realized: “In just five years after its passage, the English proficiency of limited-English students tripled. And, not coincidentally, the math scores of the English-immersion students rose. It demonstrably helped students.” But the fact that English proficiency rose dramatically and math scores rose marginally during this time frame shows correlation, not causation. It also emphasizes just one metric – English – and only one group – non-English speakers.
A more comprehensive analysis, we think, points to a different conclusion. Newer research shows that English immersion does help non-English speakers learn English, but not much else; moreover even that benefit diminishes over time because their overall knowledge development becomes stunted:
“[O]ver the years, researchers like Collier have found that while English learners may have better test scores in the first few years after intensive English-only instruction, they tend to fall behind in the long term. The reason, she and others say, is that focusing solely on acquiring English for a year or two means the student misses out on crucial content instruction. ‘They don’t get any more support for developing thinking skills in their first language, which slows down the cognitive process,” Collier says. “And they don’t ever catch up.’”
We think that last observation is both disturbing and critical to the analysis. We agree that teaching non-English speakers English is critical to their successful integration into the multi-ethnic society that is the United States. But doing so at the cost of their overall development seems like a tragically flawed idea.
The Merc and the very few other opponents of this provision also overlook another group of individuals that are served by Proposition 58: English speakers. While proponents of Proposition 227 in 1998 focused exclusively on non-English speakers, Proposition 58 focuses both on English and non-English speakers. It seeks to take a baby-step toward acknowledging that the uniquely American habit of single-language competence is hurting Americans in the global. Moreover its approach is in-line with studies showing that the benefits of dual-language immersion studies are not limited to non-English speakers; it benefits English speakers too:
“Over 18 years, Dr. Collier and her colleague at George Mason, Wayne Thomas, studied millions of student records and a range of bilingual education programs across the country. Their conclusion: Dual-language programs in particular ‘lead to grade-level and above-grade-level achievement in second language,’ whether English or not. Such programs, they wrote, are the only ones that ‘fully close the gap’ between English learners and native English speakers. . . historically at-risk groups with low achievement levels . . . also stood to benefit when classes are taught in two languages. . . And the advantages, they note, range from better test scores and understanding of concepts to improved community relationships. . . ‘So far we have not found any group of students that does not benefit,’ Collier says. ‘It’s incredible how well the kids are doing in every single group we’ve looked at.’
‘If you look at other educational systems throughout the world, especially in developed countries, you’ll see learning a language is part of the core curriculum from elementary on up,’ he says. ‘We have this idea that bilingual education is odd or unusual or revolutionary, when it’s just good practice.’”
That is quiet a ringing endorsement of the idea that we should be educating in multiple languages – something that is currently strongly discouraged because of Proposition 227. Indeed, dual-language education is already occurring in many other states; nationwide there are at least 500 dual-language immersion programs, involving a multitude of foreign languages, in K-12 education. Proposition 58 would allow – but not require – such programs here and would have no meaningful budgetary consequences.
Proposition 58 is broadly supported by political leaders, interest groups, advocacy groups, business, and 12 editorial boards. Its listed opponents include only a single political leader, the Republican Party, two individuals, and three not-so-convincing editorials. Ultimately, we agree with those who view Proposition 58 as being about choice; it continues to ensure that English proficiency be attained, but it gives schools, parents and communities more tools with which to attain that important goal while simultaneously giving English speakers the ability to opt for multi-lingual studies.
Recommendation: strong YES