Good Solutions Require Good Information

By Dan Meisel   |   February 15, 2022

We can’t solve important local problems unless we get better at recognizing what we do and don’t know. That includes acknowledging when our conclusions may be unsupported and when we need to look beyond our own experiences to understand the experiences of others.

Consider, for example, discussions about dual language immersion (DLI) programs, in which students experience educational curriculum in two languages. DLI programs have existed for a long time, but a ballot initiative passed by California voters in 1998 required nearly all classroom instruction for English language learners to be conducted in English. 

In the ensuing decades, it became clear that “immersing” English language learners only in English instruction was not working well for far too many students. With persistent performance below grade-level, low scores on assessments of English proficiency, and low rates of reclassification to “fluent English proficient,” gaps in academic performance between English learners and their English-proficient peers were widening rather than narrowing. Awareness of these outcomes spurred passage of a ballot initiative in 2016 that removed the 1998 barriers to bilingual education.

The languages we speak are often a big part of our identity, as they can be connected to one’s nationality, race, ethnicity, or social status. Discussions about the language of public-school instruction therefore evoke strong feelings, not just among parents, but also among taxpayers. Strong feelings, however, can get in the way of effective problem solving.

When local school districts announced plans to create voluntary DLI programs at designated schools, stiff opposition arose. Some of it concerned real impacts on non-DLI students, but much of it consisted of unsupported opinions about DLI itself.

One form of opposition has been a continuing defense of English immersion, often by people who say English immersion worked for them, so the problem must be with current students or teachers. In most cases, however, these speakers were proficient in their initial language, which tends to accelerate acquisition of a second language. They are surprised to learn that many Spanish-only speaking parents in our area fear that speaking to their children in Spanish will get in the way of their children learning English. Those children suffer from a deficit of vocabulary in both Spanish and English that slows both their language and more general academic development. Others opposing DLI point to a particular bilingual program’s negative outcomes as proof that bilingual education “doesn’t work” – as if all such programs are the same.

Those who work in the bilingual space know that the reality is more nuanced. As Santa Barbara County’s Director of Literacy and Language Support Dr. Carlos Pagán once told me, “The history of bilingual education is that good programs produce good outcomes, and bad programs produce bad outcomes. The key is understanding and implementing what makes good programs good.”

Many of the attributes of good programs appear in Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (now in 3rd Edition), which has informed the very deliberate structures of DLI programs like the one in its fifth year at Canalino Elementary School in Carpinteria. Sixty percent of students entering Canalino are English language learners, and many of them live in poverty.

Canalino’s program, designed by a district task force that included administrators, teachers, parents, and Dr. Pagán, begins in kindergarten with an equal mix of native Spanish speakers, native English speakers, and students from multi-lingual homes. Instruction is initially 90% in Spanish and 10% in English. These proportions shift by 10% each year until they reach equal shares in fourth grade. Canalino’s program was the first DLI program, according to Dr. Pagán, to designate time each day for Spanish-speakers to focus specifically on English language development and English-speakers to focus specifically on Spanish language development, beyond what students learn through the regular curriculum.

Assessment is also a key component of Canalino’s program. In addition to teachers tracking their students’ progress in both languages, Canalino has engaged a team of UCSB researchers to conduct a longitudinal assessment of its DLI student outcomes, including comparing them to outcomes for non-DLI students. While there are already indications of positive performance gains relative to non-DLI students and exciting increases in engagement by Spanish-speaking parents, it is still too soon to draw conclusions, particularly with recent interruptions from the fires, mudflow, and pandemic. The most important data should become available over the next few years. Word of positive experiences must be spreading, however, as a lottery and waitlist now exist for enrollment.

While I learned about the Canalino program though ADL’s local exploration of academic achievement gaps, I later became involved (in my non-ADL capacity) as a funder of the UCSB research component. While I am hopeful the data confirms that Canalino’s program “works” for its students, I won’t be reaching any firm conclusions until data supports some. I also won’t assume that outcomes at Canalino will ensure positive outcomes for the similarly modeled DLI programs that have since emerged in the Santa Barbara, Goleta, Santa Maria-Bonita, Solvang, and Lompoc districts, which I hear have resulted in more lotteries and waitlists. It will be important that those programs incorporate assessments to determine what is and isn’t working in their environments.

In our polarized world, we need be particularly wary of reaching conclusions based only on the limited information to which we have access. When someone asks if you are “for” or “against” programs you don’t know intimately, you can answer (as I do about bilingual education), that you are for good programs, against bad programs, and in favor of allocating the resources and effort necessary to determine which are which.  


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