The “Two-Sizes-Fits-All” Approach to Bilingual Education Doesn’t Work

Girl reading(Image: Girl reading via Shutterstock)How long should it take for English language learners (ELL) to achieve second-language proficiency? That is the question under debate in the Oregon Legislature. A bill, HB 3499, sponsored by several state legislators, proposes a maximum of seven years for students who have been identified with low-level, English-language proficiency and four years for students with moderate skill.

English literacy is a critical first step for “ELL” student academic success. Current state law does not dictate a maximum length of time students may rely on ELL program support, nor does the state determine how districts must spend the $3,750 in additional funding they receive for each ELL student.

Critics of these policies argue that school districts retain students in ELL programs longer than necessary. They have charged that districts use the additional funding to pay for other school programs.

Large-scale research studies conducted in states with significant ELL populations, such as California, Arizona and Texas, conclude that it may take up to 10 years for ELL students to achieve English proficiency. Why? Because social and economic factors that affect ELL students in their schools and social environments must be taken into account. To properly assess what makes sense for each student, one must consider fluency in the native language, socioeconomic status, parents’ education level, sociocultural adjustment and whether the student has a learning disability.

As a middle school teacher in California, I too observed the unique challenges faced by children of immigrants and refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Armenia. My students’ challenges also contributed to a phenomenon known as “subtractive bilingualism,” wherein a person has limited proficiency in both native and second languages. Students experiencing this status require additional instructional resources and support in their home language while they learn English.

That is why I am dismayed that HB 3499 limits ELL instruction to four and seven years, ignoring the instructional needs of linguistically and culturally diverse ELL students. Adopting a “two-sizes-fits-all” approach to English language acquisition ignores what research tells us is optimal for ELL students to achieve English proficiency.

If the legislature passes this bill, a first grade student with low-level English language skill will receive ELL instruction with the expectation that he or she will achieve English proficiency by the end of the eighth grade. Likewise, a sixth grade student with intermediate-level English language skill will be expected to reach English proficiency by the end of 10th grade. But what if they don’t become English proficient within the prescribed timeframe?

The bill would shut off the ELL resource boost to districts, allowing continuation only if justified in a bureaucratic waiver application, which may or may not be honored by the State Board of Education. In other words, ELL students would lose the very resources designed to support their acquisition of English fluency. This is not a prescription for student success and ignores what research tells us about the process of developing true academic (as opposed to conversational) literacy.

Even as the decades-long disinvestment in Oregon’s public schools continues, more immigrants are moving here. While the spotlight shines on immigrant students, lawmakers would be wise to focus their energies on educational quality, not quantity, in deriving policies to improve these students’ lives.