Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Horne v. Flores drives another nail into the coffin of bilingual education, the teaching theory in which immigrant children are segregated by language and taught primarily in their native language while being taught English on the side.
Bilingual education is a documented failure in school systems across the country, and the 5-4 decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., involving Arizona’s Nogales Unified School District emphasizes this failure with a stark conclusion: Teach English. Specifically, the high court recognizes the demonstrated effectiveness of structured English immersion (SEI) methods for teaching English language learners (ELL).
In 1992, some students and parents in the district sued the state, claiming it wasn’t taking “appropriate action” to overcome barriers to ELLs in schools. The state responded with English-immersion techniques. (Thomas Horne is the state school superintendent for public instruction.) Here’s what the high court concluded: “Research on ELL instruction indicates there is documented academic support for the view that SEI is significantly more effective than bilingual education. Findings of the Arizona Department of Education in 2004 strongly support this conclusion.”
The Supreme Court also concluded that a lower court had failed to adequately consider whether the Nogales school district’s implementation of SEI was a “changed circumstance” warranting relief.
SEI has proved its superiority to bilingual education wherever it has been implemented. The English-advocacy group ProEnglish filed a Horne friend-of-the court brief, and it is significant that the ruling cites Arizona data provided by the organization.
In fact, new numbers just released by the Arizona Department of Education estimate that 40,000, or 29 percent, of ELLs enrolled in SEI classes passed the English fluency exam and will transition into mainstream classes this year. That is up from just 17,813 students, or 12 percent, of ELLs who passed the English-fluency exam after being enrolled in bilingual education classes in 2006-07.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Nogales school district is doing exactly what the law requires - taking “appropriate action” through English immersion techniques to teach English to students who grew up speaking another language.
The Supreme Court could have cited many more SEI success stories. Massachusetts, for example, effectively uses English immersion as opposed to bilingual education. The June 7 Boston Globe reported on that state’s top-performing high school graduates - the valedictorians - including a boy from Haiti who arrived in Boston four years ago without knowing a word of English. The paper reported that Edner Paul not only leads his school but won a four-year scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Furthermore, according to the Globe, immigrant students were class valedictorians in 17 of the 42 high schools in Boston - and most arrived a few years ago barely knowing English.
A recent study by the Editorial Projects in Education also spotlights Massachusetts education and chronicles further encouraging news about English learners. Compared to English learners across the country, 36 percent of the state’s ELL students reached a proficient level in English, as opposed to just 16 percent nationwide. If that level of success holds true each year, most kids would learn English quickly enough to be out of special programs in two to three years at most.
Nogales school officials were trying to follow a successful model in spite of a vocal multilingual lobby that seeks to coddle non-English speakers in our classrooms. Yet polls continue to show that more than 90 percent of all Americans view English is the nation’s unifying language - a common tongue that enables job-seeking legal newcomers to participate in the American dream. The Supreme Court couldn’t have sent a clearer signal: Get rid of bilingual education and give English language learners a real opportunity to learn English and succeed.
Phil Kent is a board member of ProEnglish, based in Arlington.