What works

No Child Left Behind is forcing education researchers to get serious about determining what works, writes Karin Chenoweth in Education Week. The “dirty little secret of education” is that we don’t know.

Here’s an example: For children whose first language is not English, what is the best way to ensure that they learn not only English, but all the math, history, and science that they should learn? Is it best to teach math, history, and science in their home language while teaching English separately? Or is it to intensively teach English, leaving aside the other subjects until English is mastered? Does it make a difference if the child comes to this country when he is 2 years old or when he is age 12? Does it matter whether the child’s first language has a lot of overlap with English, like German or Spanish, or if it is completely unrelated, like Turkish or Chinese? Does it help or hurt to continue to use the home language outside of school?

For a nation of immigrants in the middle of a huge wave of immigration, it would seem important to know the answers to those questions. Unfortunately, we have no idea.

Individual educators may have implemented successful practices in their schools, but without linking those practices to research demonstrating that what they do could be successful with other kids, all we have are individual experiences, not standard practice. This leaves us with philosophies. We have a bilingual philosophy and an English- first philosophy, complete with testimonials about what worked for whose grandparents, but these really are politicalóbordering on the religiousó arguments, rather than scientific ones.

G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the child- development and -behavior branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the director of the institute’s reading-research program, has commissioned a major study on what methods of English-language instruction work best for which kids, but we won’t have the results for some time.

No Child Left Behind is creating a revolution in education research, Chenoweth writes. About time. The What Works Clearinghouse is supposed to provide guidance on a variety of education questions.

Update: Reform K12 says we do so know what works. We just don’t do it.

About Joanne


  1. “The ‘dirty little secret of education’ is that we don’t know.”

    The other secret is that there are different ways to learn. No, I’m not advocating total eduanarchy in the name of diversity. There are strategies that are highly unlikely to work: e.g., learning to read through sheer brute force memorization. I’m just saying that the search for THE solution for everyone may be doomed to failure. That’s why I’m for school choice.

    Sorry if Chenoweth already said that. I’m not a registered reader of Education Week, so I can only go by what you quoted.

  2. Bill Beeman says:

    It will amaze me if the output of these studies has any real effect on every day educational practice.

    The establishment as it stands today has fiercely resisted letting fact influence practice…look at the incredible resistance to dumping bilingual education (as practiced in California), long after cursory examination of the students emerging from the “treatment” proved it ineffective. There is still resistance by the educrats trying to hang on to the old system, despite its demonstrated effect of turning out far too many students with no literacy or competence in either language…english, or their native language.

    So I have little confidence that the effect of NCLB will be to break through the wall of unproven educational theory that all too frequently stands between today’s students and effective learning.

  3. Amritas speaketh ze truth. Different kids learn differently. And I think Chenoweth is being a bit hyperbolic. We do know that learning an additional language is easier at 2 than it is at 12. I suspect that bilingual and immersion education both have their place in the teaching of ESL and that a blend is what is most effective.

  4. Eric Jablow says:

    What worked 90 years ago when my ancestors came from Eastern Europe to the US?

  5. Eric,

    Your ancestors (and some of mine) sank or swam. Those that integrated did better than those that didn’t. That included learning the language.

    During the process, however, poverty was widespread. Going hungry wasn’t uncommon. Infant mortality was high, as were diseases like Tuburculosis.
    Today, we have a different perspective on poverty. Besides 3 meals a day, lack of indoor heating is poverty. A lack of motorized transportation is poverty.

  6. It’s record cold. A lack of indoor heating is dangerous. People used to have fires, but it’s hard to do that in apartments without fireplaces.

    One reality is that, in the end, if someone wants to learn a language, and is motivated to do so, they probably can — especially in a place where that’s the main language. Is it best to teach immigrants math in English? It depends. If they don’t speak any English, how much math are they going to understand? If they have English only in their official English class, an hour a day, how can they be expected to learn at any real speed?

  7. I remember being four years old, two years after I came to America, and people who spoke English scared me. I remember biting people who spoke English because they scared me (something that is no longer a problem).

    I wasn’t comfortable until after I’d started kindegarten, but in that classroom, social concerns forced me to learn English quickly. Extra ESL classes helped, but more as a way for me to mingle with other Korean students and maintain my “culture.”

    Of course, this was only Kindergarten, but it certainly predisposes me to support immersion tactics.

  8. jeff wright says:

    I’ve learned two foreign languages as an adult—Korean and German—at the Defense Language Institute. Full immersion, six hours per day and then the expectation of three hours per night. To answer Joanne’s question whether it matters if the first language overlaps, you bet. Korean was the most difficult academic thing I’ve ever done. I worked the whole nine hours and more and, even though I passed the relevant listening and speaking tests, I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. German was a different matter. Played a lot of golf (Monterey, you know), studied no more than an hour a night and did very well on the final exams. After six months in Germany, I was often mistaken for a German.

    I have an adult education ESL credential and spent the years 2001-2003 teaching nights to mostly Hispanic students. I’m not doing it this year. One of the main reasons I’m not doing it now was the frustration at not making breakthroughs with more than a minority of students. Most did not work on English for much more than the five hours per week (two nights) I had them. They were right up front up about it: it’s too easy to get along in Spanish 24-7 here in San Jose. In a word, immersion is impossible.

    I also did a long-term sub job (five months) at a middle school three years ago. Mostly Hispanic kids, most immigrants with varying abilities. VERY frustrating, trying to teach academics (3Rs, to include pre-algebra)) to kids who can barely speak English. I have now developed the firm belief that these kids should be put into full-immersion English classes for a year. Nothing else, just all day on English—reading and writing. Yeah, they’d “lose” a year of the other stuff (principally math and social studies), but the benefits would far outweigh any downside. They would rapidly catch up once they knew English. As it is now, many just vegetate until they’re sixteen and can drop out.

    Immersion works.

  9. Amritas is right, of course, but the debate is more complicated because of that.

    Selecting your teaching strategy is often a matter of selecting which students you are willing to sacrifice to another student’s benefit.

    Given that modern society doesn’t really tolerate writing children off, it means that every propounder of a technique has to lie and say this is the “one true way” that works best for everyone or have their technique rejected out of hand.

    Small wonder that the debate over teaching techniques is bound to generate more heat than light. The first completely truthful person loses.

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    You do recognize, Tom, that as Amritas said, this is a very powerful argument for school choice?

  11. I believe that all American should be required to speak our native language.


  12. Jack,

    I’d settle for English…

  13. I’ve become addicted to Stargate SG-1, which runs on the SciFi channel. I can assure that the residents of virtually all planets — human, humanoid and alien — speak English. American English too. But often without the use of contractions.

  14. My daughter until she started school in September did not speak a word of English. It was a full immersion, and for the first few days and weeks she was quiet. There was no one giving her instruction on learning english, just the regular busy day of jr. kindergarden. I had noticed her trying out English words at home, talking to her dolls in English etc. in early October. On Halloween she came home to tell me that “I’m an English girl now mommy”. The next school day, I snuck into her class a little early, and witnessed to my delight, her pretend playing at being princesses with a group of kids, speaking fluently in a beauitful little accented English. She hasn’t looked back since then. I myself was introduced to English in much the same manner when I started grade 2 in a town that didn’t have a French school.

    Here, French Immersion schools are all the rage. I teach highschool immersion (French, History, Religion, Economics) and have classes involved in early immersion (since kindergarden) and late immersion (usually grade 4, sometimes as late as grade 8). I find, there is a huge difference in their language skills. Those that learned later are embarassed to speak French, and they struggle through history and economics because they don’t understand the language, not because they necessarily find the subject matter difficult. Yet these are children who were allowed to be moved to the immersion program in grade 4, or 8 because they were identified as “gifted”, while any parent can register their child for early immersion. In my school, those students (early immersion) have the best grades, the least discipline problems, and it seems to me the most confidence…. (Maybe because they see themselve as having a special ability?). I think the more choice there is, the better!
    By the way for those who offered their help, we had a lengthy discussion of circles last night, and traced some circles, and I was treated to a beautiful happy face picture when I woke up this morning. (She pointed out that the lines didn’t meet but that she was an abstract artist….)

  15. Joanne,

    I can assure you on good authority that the Stargate ‘adjusts’ people who go through it, so the aliens, etc. only APPEAR to be speaking American English. See for yourself at SciFi.com.

    Nice to see a fellow SG-1 fan.

    Okay, ‘fess up: who do you think is cuter, Jack, Daniel or Teal’c? Or are you a closet admirer of General Hammond like me?

  16. Jack: Since I live in Michigan, I assume that for me it would be Chippewa. 😉

  17. A Star Trek Next Generation episode inadvertently revealed that Romulans are on Greenwich Mean Time.

  18. We’ve had 200 years of immigrants and experience and we still don’t know and have to spend scarce $ on finding out?

  19. Mark Odell says:

    JJ wrote: I can assure that the residents of virtually all planets — human, humanoid and alien — speak English. American English too. But often without the use of contractions.

    Now that’s what I call immersion! 😉

    Claire wrote: I can assure you on good authority that the Stargate ‘adjusts’ people who go through it, so the aliens, etc. only APPEAR to be speaking American English.

    “It’s a Time Lord’s gift I allow you to share.”


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