San Francisco's Bilingual Programs as Effective as English Only, Study Finds

March 17, 2014

By Lesli A. Maxwell

By the time they reach 5th grade, English-language learners in San Francisco's public schools were equally proficient in English regardless of whether they had been in a bilingual program or had received all their instruction in English, a recent study from Stanford University researchers has found.

Though ELLs who were in bilingual education programs in San Francisco lagged in the earlier grades, they also scored similarly on the state's academic tests and had virtually the same rates of reclassification to English-fluent status by 5th grade as their ELL peers who were in the district's English-immersion program.

One notable exception: By 5th grade, higher numbers of Latino ELLs in bilingual programs reached the "mid-basic" level of achievement on the state's English/language arts exam than their Latino ELL peers in English-immersion. Mid-basic is a score of 325 on the state's former ELA exam (out of 600 points) and was the required minimum score to be considered for reclassification to English-proficient status, among other criteria. (California this year is not giving its old state tests as it transitions to the common-core aligned tests designed by Smarter Balanced.)

These results shedding light on the effectiveness of four distinct instructional programs offered to ELLs in the San Francisco district come just as there's growing momentum to repeal California's 15-year-old restrictions on bilingual education in public schools. For years, debates over the most effective methods of English-language instruction have often gotten snarled in political and ideological disagreements.

The study compared the progress of English-learners as they moved from kindergarten through elementary grades and into middle school by looking at their scores on California's annual English-language proficiency tests, the rates at which they were reclassified as English-fluent, and their scores on state exams. The study also looked at the differences in effectiveness between the district's two largest groups of ELLs: Chinese speakers and Spanish speakers.

Authors of the two different papers that delved into San Francisco's ELL programs are Ilana Umansky, Rachel Valentino, and Sean Reardon at Stanford.

The study's sample was 18,000 English-learners who entered kindergarten in San Francisco between 2002 and 2010. About 37 percent of the district's student population is ELL. Forty percent are native Spanish speakers; 40 percent are Chinese speakers, and 20 percent speak a diverse array of other languages.

San Francisco, in spite of the restrictions imposed by Proposition 227, has maintained a robust offering of language-learning pathways for English-learners. Under Prop. 227, parents can sign waivers that allow their children to receive bilingual instruction.

In the study's sample, 9,000 English-learner students were in the district's English-immersion program, 4,000 were in its bilingual maintenance program, 3,000 in the transitional bilingual program, and 2,000 in dual-language programs that also include native English speakers.

The study also revealed a major achievement gap between Chinese-speaking English learners and their Spanish-speaking peers. Chinese-speaking ELLs reached English-language proficiency in greater numbers and more rapidly than Spanish-speaking ELLs across all four language programs.