Quality of Instruction, Not Medium of Instruction

Education involves so many factors. The ideal is a well-controlled data-driven study with quantitative significant testing. This is a comment I heard from a scientist at Johns Hopkins University. This scientist even adds that "Decisions impacting children's future should be based on statistically proven results with at least a 95% confidence level." When I asked this scientist to describe in detail how a study should be performed, the response was:
"I would start simply - just select at least two classes on the first year, assign about equal students in each class at random, and use the method to be tested on one class and the conventional on the other. Use standardized tests before, during and after the school year. Analyze with a paired t-test. All other variables beside the method of instruction should be the same, hence the analysis is only for the effect of the two instructional methods. You can continue this for years...."
Browsing through journals, I found an example. And coincidentally, the first author of the published study is also from Johns Hopkins (different person, though). The paper's first author is Robert E. Slavin. Slavin also writes for the Huffington Post so one could find the following on the Post's website:
Robert Slavin is Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Director of the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York (UK), and the co-founder and Chairman of the Success for All Foundation. He is an expert on research-based school improvement, reading instruction, English-language learners, and federal education reform policy. Slavin has authored or co-authored more than 300 articles and 24 books. He received the Distinguished Services Award from the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2000, the AERA Review of Research Award in 2009, the Palmer O. Johnson Award for the best article in an AERA journal in 2008, and was appointed as a Member of the National Academy of Education in 2009 and an AERA Fellow in 2010.
Slavin is one of the world's experts on education research. The paper I came across is from the following journal:

 The following is the title and abstract of the paper:

The study fits the description. This is randomized, students were assigned either to a Spanish medium or an English medium class without prejudice. Parents' permission was obtained for all the students participating in the study but the parents had no say to which class their children would be assigned. All children were pretested in both standardized English and Spanish exams. With the Spanish language, learning resources as well as assessment tools are readily available. The Spanish pretest scores at kindergarten were used to ensure that all the students participating in the study were indeed "Spanish dominant" (Spanish is their mother tongue). The rest of the study took five years. Each year the students take pretests and post tests. And as the abstract above points out: In terms of both English and Spanish tests, there is no difference in learning outcomes between the two languages of instruction. 

The paper is not only useful in that it provides a well-controlled study but it also spends quite some time in its introduction discussing previous studies on multilingual education. The paper correctly notes the lack of consensus among studies in the area. However, the results presented in this paper actually agree with the few reliable long term evaluations of bilingual education that have been done in the past.

The paper also highlights the following important result:
"...Yet in this study, fourth graders who had been taught to read in Spanish from kindergarten to second grade scored nonsignificantly better than those taught only in English on measures of Spanish language and reading."
This is quite similar to non-Tagalog school children in the Philippines doing as well or even better in the Filipino section (which is mostly Tagalog) of the National Achievement Test.

Finally, this study concludes with the following very important statement:

The findings of the present study reinforce the frequently stated conclusion that what matters most in the education ... is the quality of instruction, not the language of instruction... Schools may choose to teach ... in either their native language or English for many reasons, including cultural, economic, or political rationales. Yet the data from this experiment do not support the claims that this choice is crucial for ultimate learning of English or Spanish reading.


  1. It is important that a child be able to think clearly before we worry about the language that child uses for thinking. Students who are proficient in their first language have the basic skills they need to continue education in a second language. Students who are not proficient in those skills will have to learn both the language and the skills at the same time. It's a much more difficult task.

  2. That is exactly a hypothesis that the above well-controlled study does NOT support.

  3. the study assumes that the teachers can teach with english or spanish. the debate in the phils is, given teacher quality, what is the best method moving forward?

  4. The answer to your question is this: It is probably difficult to get around teacher quality. It is one factor that is problematic. It does not lend to an easy fix. The only way to address teacher quality is to improve teacher quality. The medium does not make up for lack of quality in instruction.

  5. undeniably, teacher quality is good. but i think u r misreading the import of this study. what its saying is: "conditional on (good) teacher quality, medium of instruction is not crucial.

    note that this is NOT the policy issue facing the philippines. the issue is: given teacher quailty NOW, what is the most effective policy levers to use to improve student outcomes.

  6. No, I quoted exactly what Slavin et al. concluded. Do not reduce instruction quality to just the quality of teachers. Instruction quality depends on available resources - textbooks and other learning materials. With regard to medium of instruction, one has to look at how capable the teacher is in using that medium. Lastly, the academic level of the language is also an important factor. It is true that if teachers can do a better job using one language as opposed to another, then it makes sense to have that teacher work with the language that teacher is more comfortable with - this is still quality of instruction - not coming from the medium - it just happens that the teacher is better, more motivated to work with one language and not the other.

  7. again, no debate with me about what constitutes/causes teacher quality. its one of the core problems in the literature.

    note that slavin etal also write: "Finally, a critical design feature for studies of language of instruction is provision of consistent, high-quality curriculum and instruction to all children, to ensure that language of instruction is the only factor that differentiates experimental groups and that instructional quality is sufficient in both groups (see August & Hakuta, 1997). In the present study, this design feature was accomplished by providing the Success for All program to all children"

    interpret their results then as: "conditional on high quality of teacher/instruction, the medium of instruction does not matter.

    i doubt if slavin will accept if their results to be generalized further than that. they are important results; but dont make the case against a transitional bilingual educ a slam dunk.

  8. That design is necessary for the experiment to zero in on the effect of medium of instruction. That is how a proper experiment is done. Otherwise, there will be factors other than medium of instruction that will come to play. The study isolates the question into a much clearer one. if you know how to appreciate what controlled experiments are and what these actually allow us to see then you will arrive at the conclusion that this study is not a case against transitional bilingual education. It is a case against the hypothesis that transitional bilingual education is more effective than immersion. I hope you appreciate the difference between the two conclusions.

  9. "It is a case against the hypothesis that transitional bilingual education is more effective than immersion", conditional on good teacher/teaching quality.

    thats an experiment right, all else held equal? in this case, its teacher/teaching quality that they are controlling (whether they succeed is another matter).

  10. I have confidence that Slavin et al. did perform this study in a well controlled, careful and thoughtful manner. You can specifically read the methods they employed and how the pupils and teachers were selected for the study to see what the researchers carefully considered in setting up the study.

  11. Bill 1563 is all about the medium of instruction. It suggests that we better use Filipino that English. It states that the use of the national language in the country’s school would better promote the love of Filipino. It also says there that national language is muche easier to understand.
    I don’t agree of using Filipino as a medium of instruction for education because. This is because English is the most commonly used language in the world. It’s an international language. Through English language, every country can communcate wuth each other. Filipinos are one of the most best speakers in the world, this is because at our young age we were trained to speak English at our schoolsand now, majority of us, Filipinos, knows how to speak English. That’s why many foreign employers choose Filipinos to work for their company, specially call centers. But if Blill 1563 will be passed and approved, what will happen to the next generation of Filipinos? Is today our economy is already bad, what more of there will be no more Filipino OFW’s because of laguage barrier?
    Another disadvantege of using Filipino as a medium of instruction is the hardship of teaching. They say it will be more easier to understand the lessons if it is in Filipino, but how about the english, scientific and mathematical terms that don’t have counter partsin our Filipino language? It is the teacher and the textbook authors that will suffer in translating these lessons into Filipino.
    Application of Bill 1563, when approved, will take a long time because it is not that easy translating. The author of the bill thinks that this chang will make our country better, in contrary, it will just bring problems. Let’s admit it. We can’t stand alone and we need help from other countries too. Just like in history, when America helped us form our government.

  12. Bill 1563 is old (2004). The new law which I believe is simply waiting for the President's signature prescribes the mother tongue as medium of instruction for K-6.


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