In June 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, which severely restricted the use of primary language for instructing English learners, and instead called for a transitional program of “structured English immersion” that was not normally to last more than one year. What has been the initial impact of Proposition 227?
During the first year of implementation a team of University of California researchers studied the effects of Proposition 227 in 16 districts and 25 schools throughout the state. The researchers interviewed district administrators, principals, teachers, and bilingual coordinators and observed classrooms. This study has yielded several important insights into the early implementation and impact of Proposition 227.
First, statewide, 29 percent of English learners were in a primary language program prior to 227, and only 12 percent were assigned to one after the implementation of 227. Across the districts and schools we studied, there was wide diversity of responses. Districts with a history of extensive primary language programs and significant numbers of certified bilingual staff were more likely to continue these programs than were districts and schools with weaker primary language programs and inadequate numbers of certified bilingual staff. Where strong leadership was exercised at the top of the district, either in providing parents with information about alternative options to structured English immersion classes, or in urging principals to discontinue primary language instruction, schools followed suit. However, where district leadership was less prescriptive, the decisions fell to principals, creating a diversity of responses within the district. In both situations, some teachers exercised considerable autonomy in interpreting district and school directives, resulting in a diversity of instructional strategies within the same school.
Second, in the initial months of implementation, there was considerable confusion across the state about the role of the district and the schools in informing parents of their rights to seek waivers from the structured English immersion program provided under the provisions of Proposition 227. Statewide, only 67 percent of districts formally notified parents of this option. Some districts interpreted the initiative as barring any proactive dissemination of waiver information while others considered it their duty under the law to provide parents with information about their program options. Schools and districts that facilitated access to information about the waiver option were more likely to continue to provide primary language instruction for significant numbers of students.
Third, what teachers chose to do in their own classrooms in the post-227 period depended to a great extent on what they had done prior to 227, and on their own skills, experience, and beliefs about students’ learning. However, it was rare to encounter a teacher who contended that his or her instruction and class organization had not been affected. Teachers who were certified and experienced in bilingual instruction were more likely to continue to provide some level of primary language support for their students, although this varied greatly depending on the climate in their schools. These teachers were careful to keep primary language support within the strict confines of providing instruction “overwhelmingly in English,” as defined by their district. Although many teachers who taught in waivered classrooms, using bilingual methods, contended that their teaching had not changed significantly, they worried that they would be required to change their practice in the future. And many experienced bilingual teachers who were no longer in bilingual classrooms reported feeling frustrated by not being able to use the full range of skills they possessed to instruct their English learners.