Students learning English benefit more in two-language instructional programs than English immersion, Stanford research finds

March 25, 2014

By Andrew Myers

Like a growing number of school systems across the country, San Francisco Unified School District is tasked with educating increasing rolls of students for whom English is not their first language. In the United States, the school-aged population has grown a modest 10 percent in the last three decades, while the number of children speaking a language other than English at home has soared by 140 percent.

Against this backdrop, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) are examining student performance in various types of English-language learning programs.

The first focuses on how long it takes non-English-speaking students to reach English proficiency and be reclassified out of English learner (EL) status. The second looks at the same students' academic trajectories over time, comparing outcomes of four English-learner instructional program types.

The results show that while students in English immersion programs perform better in the short term, over the long term students in classrooms taught in two languages not only catch up to their English immersion counterparts, but they eventually surpass them, both academically and linguistically.

The researchers will present findings at a meeting of the SFUSD School Board on Tuesday, March 25. The meeting starts at 6 p.m.

In their study, the researchers identified a group of about 18,000 English-learner students in the San Francisco school system who entered kindergarten as early as the fall of 2001. They were enrolled in four distinct linguistic instructional environments, and the researchers followed their progress for 10 years.

Much debate in the educational community centers on which type of educational approach works best to help non-English-speaking students learn English, as well as other subjects such as math, science and history, at the same time. Until recently, the discussion has been fueled largely by preconceptions and evidence from a set of relatively small-scale studies, because robust data on large numbers of English-learner students in diverse instructional programs was not yet available. The Stanford-SFUSD research team is among the first to do a large-scale quantitative analysis on the comparative efficacy of these programs.

"With this study we're interested in helping the district figure out what works best for those who matter most: the students," said Sean Reardon, a professor of education and scholar at Stanford's Center for Education Policy Analysis, who directed the study. "Unfortunately, in the past there has been precious little data and rigorous evidence; we wanted to see if we could provide better evidence to inform the scholarly debate."