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Reassessing the Role of Ethnographic Methods in Education Policy Research: Implementing Bilingual Education Policy at Local Levels

by Tom T. Stritikus & Ann-Marie Wiese - 2006

In this article, we address the ongoing call for research to be more relevant to educational policy and practice by focusing on the public controversy regarding bilingual education. To show how ethnographic research can be relevant, we present findings of two independent but parallel studies of how teachers implement bilingual education policies based on Proposition 227 in California. Findings from both studies indicate that the use of ethnographic methods yields a rich account of various factors that play a crucial role in determining how educational policy is implemented. In reporting on these ethnographic studies, we seek to provide an alternative voice in the ongoing discussion about the role of research in educational policy and practice.

The thought occurred to me that educators have something to learn from physicians. Medicine, too, has its quacks and charlatans. But unlike educators, physicians have canons of scientific validity to protect innocent patients from unproven remedies and specious theories. To be sure, not every important question can be resolved by scientific research, but medicine seems to have done a good job of identifying and implementing those that can.

In our society, we rightly insist upon valid medical research; after all, lives are at risk. Now that I am on the mend, I wonder: Why dont we insist with equal vehemence on well-tested, validated education research? Lives are at risk here, too. (Ravitch, 1998, p. 33)

As she lay on an emergency room table, Diane Ravitch was led to wonder how her medical treatment might have been different if it had not been based on a rigorous model of scientific research. Thankful that it was grounded in well-tested, validated research, she used this occasion to call into question the lack of rigor in educational research.

Although there are elements of truth in her critique of educational research and her praise of medical research, Ravitch overestimated the role of the scientific model as the basis for medical practice. Consider, for example, the case of Lia Lee, the epileptic Hmong child who is the subject of Fadimans (1997) examination of how cultural misunderstandings between an Asian family and the medical profession led to tragedy. In examining the events that led Lias permanent comatose state, Fadiman documented the limits of medical research in helping doctors resolve the tensions and challenges of working in culturally and linguistically diverse settings. Large-scale examinations of the medical treatment of racially and ethnically diverse groups in the United States have confirmed what Fadimans study has shown: In order to be effective, the health care system must deal with the influence of culture, social context, and ideology (Smedley, Stith, & Nelson, 2003).

On the surface, calls for educational research to become more like medical research seem reasonable. However, viewed in light of the issues faced by the medical community regarding the growing treatment gap for diverse groups, such praise of the medical model is in need of reassessment. The manner in which medical practice has been complicated by issues of race, culture, and ideology provides an opportunity to examine the role of educational research in addressing the pressing educational concerns of our times. What, then, should be the role for educational research that does not conform to the scientific model of experimental design? To what extent can such research be useful in addressing issues that might be overlooked by research based exclusively on a scientific model? The purpose of this article is to examine the relevance and usefulness of ethnographic methods in conducting research on educational policy and practice.

Critiques of educational research for its lack of rigor are certainly not new. Many such attacks have been directed specifically at qualitative and ethnographic approaches (Hargreaves, 1997; Hillage, Pearson, Anderson, & Tamkin, 1998; Rossel & Baker, 1996; Walford, 2001). Given the continued use of ethnographic methods in educational research, it is important to consider the role that they can play in important policy debates in education (Eisenhart, 2001). One area in which the integrity of educational research has come into question is bilingual education. In 1998, bilingual education was brought to public attention with the passage of Californias Proposition 227the English for the Children Initiative, as it was known by its supporters. Despite opposition from President Clinton, major political figures in California, and nearly all statewide teaching and educational associations, Proposition 227 passed with 61% of the vote. The law requires that all children in California public schools be taught English by being taught in English. The intent of the law was to end the practice of native language support and development for immigrant students in California. During the campaign, bilingual education was blamed for the poor academic performance of the states 1.5 million English language learners (ELLs), even though less than 30% of the total number of students were actually in bilingual programs prior to the passage of the law (Gandara et al., 2000).

During the Proposition 227 campaign, the relevance of educational research to policy and practice was at the center of the debate. Ron Unz, the primary sponsor of the initiative, spent a considerable amount of his time and personal fortune attacking the research that supports bilingual education as biased and lacking rigor. In the debates preceding and following Proposition 227 in California, Proposition 203 in Arizona, and similar initiatives across the nation, the media advanced the idea that the passage of these initiatives had proved that bilingual education was ineffective (Thomson et al., 2002).

The ongoing call for educational research to be more meaningful in policy and practice debates, combined with the public controversy regarding bilingual policy and practice, makes it particularly timely to reexamine the role of ethnographic research in understanding the current public debates in education and in bilingual education. To understand how ethnography might or might not matter, we consider how two small-scale studies (Stritikus, 2001; Wiese, 2001) contribute to the policy debate regarding the future of linguistically diverse students. In doing so, we provide an alternative voice in the discussion about the role of educational research in policy and practice issues.


In an attempt to understand how ethnographic research might contribute to the larger debate regarding the future of bilingual education, we first focus on those elements of educational policy and practice that can be best illuminated by such methods.


Despite the often acrimonious tone to the debate about the place of ethnography in policy studies and educational research in general, there is a long history of anthropological perspectives playing a significant role in shaping policy across various disciplines. Ethnographic work has informed various elements of social policy, from urban development to criminology (Fetterman, 1993). For example, in a study examining what was deemed a successful dropout intervention program, Fetterman (1981) found that the obsession with experimental design and controlled studies obscured important realities about how different contexts shape various implementations of policy. It demonstrated that even successful dropout programs operate differently across varying contexts, and hence an important role of ethnographic research is to examine how a program is adapted rather than how it is duplicated. Given that policy research has long considered the tension that exists between macro and micro levels of policy implementation (Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988), ethnography seems uniquely suited to understand the micro levels of organization in a way that moves beyond surface-level descriptions (Walford, 2001).

Similarly, Trouman (2001) argued that because a good deal of educational research has come under attack, the need to develop a clear understanding of what is actually happening at the micro level is increasingly valuable. Ethnographic examinations of the policy-to-practice connection shows the actual constraints and contradictions faced by ground-level practitioners and thus allows us to move beyond seeing practice in simplistic terms. Rather, practice can be viewed as a way of accounting for the situated logic of activities across a wide array of contexts. Practice gets at the way individuals, and groups, engage in situated behaviors that are both constrained and enabled by existing structures, but which allow the person to exercise agency in the emerging situation (Levinson & Sutton, 2001, p. 3).

Because of the dynamic social worlds in which educational policy is implemented, medical models of research necessarily miss a good deal of what occurs when policy meets practice. As Hammersley (2000) noted, once we apply an accurate understanding of the complex social worlds in which educational inquiry is conducted,

back to research and its relationship to policy making and practice, it no longer seems surprising that educational inquiry has not generally produced findings which could be, or have been, applied directly and successfully to bring about immediate improvements. At best, such determinate effects would depend on a fortuitous combination of circumstances that are unlikely even to be brought under anyones control, least of all researchers. (pp. 394-395)

Thus, given the wide array of social conditions that influence the implementation of policy, the medical model of research provides an inappropriate paradigm for guiding policy and practice decisions.


Critics of ethnographic methods have argued that increased reliance on experimental design research would result in findings that have a direct impact on practice (Hargreaves, 1997; Hillage et al., 1998). Yet, as Walford (2001) noted, such critics have a limited perspective on the nature of teaching:

Most of the discussion about the relevance of educational research has been cast in terms of the potentially direct influence on teaching and learning. Teachers are seen as the primary customers for research and the expectation is largely the rather crude one that research should help teachers by showing what works in the classroom. (p. 2)

Walford (2001) went on to argue that to have an impact on practice, educational research of any kind must build accurate conceptions of the roles that teachers play in policy implementation.

Oversimplified conceptions of teaching have plagued the field of bilingual education. Because of the tension over the role of native language instruction, there has been an overemphasis on program evaluation and a narrow focus on issues of language of instruction. These approaches have followed a more general input-output approach to policy research (August & Hakuta, 1997). In this model, key features of a program are identified and then tied to a particular productstudent outcomes. The outcomes are then measured by standardized achievement tests, and the ultimate goal is to identify the best program for language minority students. Not surprisingly, political interests drive program evaluation, and consequently, the studies support a variety of positions (Baker & de Kanter, 1981; Burkheimer, Conger, Dunteman, Elliot, & Mowbray, 1989; Meyer & Fienburg, 1992; Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, & Pasta, 1991). Program evaluation tends to focus on general programs of instruction rather than on the intricacies of daily life in the classroom, and it portrays policy implementation as simple program implementation. Overall, the misplaced focus on the evaluation of bilingual education programs has failed to take into account the role of administrators, teachers, parents, and students who shape policy implementation (Guthrie, 1985; Lemberger, 1997). Consequently, bilingual education research has missed an opportunity to expose the causal nature of the contextual issues that are crucial in policy implementation (Maxwell, 2004).

In this sense, a great deal of bilingual education research has attempted to provide what scholars of policy research call an engineering perspective (Rist, 1994). This perspective holds that with enough data and enough study, researchers can assist policy makers in determining the exact needs and places for action to bring about a specific solution to a problem. From this perspective, the role of policy research is to bring mountains of data to bear on a precisely defined problem, much as engineers develop design specifications for a bridge project. The work of Rist (1994) has illuminated the tensions and tradeoffs between the enlightenment and the engineering approaches to policy research. The enlightenment perspective holds that policy makers, practitioners, and researchers work to build a contextualized understanding about an issue with particular focus on the dimensions of the problem that might shift across space and time. Such attention to context broadens the possibilities for the ways in which problems are defined and solutions implemented.


By illuminating important aspects of the multiple layers of policy implementation, ethnographic approaches challenge the view of policy as an exclusively top-down process. Borrowing from Hargreavess (1978) early work, Hammersley (2000) highlighted the ability of qualitative research to capture what he called the appreciative capacity. He argued that such research can represent points of view which are often obscured or neglected by focusing on what is actually happening in the policy-practice connection. The appreciative capacity is contrasted by correctionalist perspectives that attempt to measure the impact of policy on addressing mediocrity, incompetence, or problems with existing practice. Hammersley argued that the correctionalist perspectives, which embody a great deal of experimental design research, have reduced educational inquiry to assessing whether policies are implemented according to the design of policy makers.

Researchers in other fields, most notably sociology and social policy, have illuminated the concept of practice and policy from the bottom up. Lipsky (1980) showed that it is useful to think of frontline workers as those who actually make policy by resolving the tensions of contradictory and ambiguous statutes. To understand the role that frontline professionals play, Brodkin (2000) advocated using interpretive methodsparticularly ethnographythat allow deep-dish analysis; that is, a process that allows the researchers to move beyond the visible policy constructs to examine the conditions of work and practice in which policy actually takes shape. Such in-depth examinations of teachers in their school contexts can build understanding of the various causal factors that shape the policy-to-practice connection. Building an appreciation for teachers perspectives can provide valuable insight regarding how the people most responsible for the day-to-day implementation of reforms negotiate, appropriate, or resist these changes. Ethnographic inquiry, with its focus on the elucidation of participants perspective and interpretations, is particularly well suited for this task (Darling-Hammond, 1990; Jennings, 1996; Maxwell, 2004).


After the passage of Proposition 227, Stritikus and Wiese began independent but parallel studies of policy-to-practice issues surrounding ELLs. Both studies employed the perspective that reality is socially constructed by multiple players across multiple contexts (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995; Erickson, 1986). To understand the local enactment of bilingual education policy, we collected naturalistic data in the nested contexts of the classroom, school, and district.1


The research took place at Westway Elementary and Open Valley Elementary, two of three elementary schools in the small rural district of Walton Unified. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 936 students attended Westway, and 69% of them received free or reduced lunch. The school had a Latino/Latina enrollment of 66%, a European American enrollment of 33%, and an ELL population of 37%. At Open Valley, all the 245 students qualified for free or reduced lunch, and 93% were Latino/Latina. The school had an ELL population of 66% and had at least one native Spanish-speaking teacher at each grade level.

Although the Walton Study focused on 4 teachers at the two schools, we present the findings from only 2 teachers: Connie of Westway and Angelica of Open Valley. Connie and Angelica were selected as the focus of this article because their personal and classroom responses to Proposition 227 were representative of the overall reactions of teachers at their respective schools. Focusing on these two teachers allows us to present an in-depth view of the classroom implications of their reactions to a major shift in bilingual education policy.

Connie, a Portuguese American woman with 11 years of teaching experience, had always been assigned to a bilingual classroom but could not recall requesting to be a bilingual teacher. Because the structure of the bilingual program prior to Proposition 227 placed native language instructional responsibility in the hands of teaching aides, Connie never worked directly with her immigrant students in the area of primary language instruction. During the study, she taught a self-contained English language development class of 20 third-grade students.

At Open Valley, the research focused on Angelica, a fifth-year teacher who came to teaching through her involvement in a migrant education program as an undergraduate. She was born in Mexico but attended school in California when her parents immigrated. During the year of the study, Angelica taught a Spanish bilingual class of 18 second-grade students. The students received language arts and math instruction in Spanish and also received 45 minutes a day of English language instruction from Angelica.

Stritikus used multiple sources of data to build a picture of the implementation of Proposition 227. He observed the two teachers in a variety of situations, including classroom contexts, grade-level meetings, all-school meetings, and district-level meetings concerning ELL issues. During the 2-hour observations of literacy instruction, the teachers wore wireless microphones to record teacher-student interaction. Stritikus used scratch notes chronicling the action of classroom events and audio recordings to compose detailed accounts of the literacy instruction. Both teachers were observed more than 20 times. After each observation, Stritikus conducted informal open-ended interviews with each teacher regarding the days events. Additionally, each teacher in the study was interviewed three times using a semi-structured interview protocol. Key school and district decision makers were also interviewed. Data collection began in April 1999 and ended in June 2000.


The research conducted by Wiese took place at Monte Vista Elementary, one of 55 elementary schools in the large urban school district of San Tomas Unified. During the 1999-2000 school year, 357 students attended Monte Vista. The student population was 51% Latino/Latina, which was more than double the overall district enrollment of 22%. The Latino/Latina population represented various countries of origin, including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. At 19%, the ratio of African American students was slightly higher than the district enrollment of 16%. European American students made up only 10% of the student population, which was slightly lower than the district enrollment of 12%. Approximately one third of all students at Monte Vista were classified as ELLs, the vast majority of whom were Spanish speakers.

To investigate the local enactment of bilingual education policy, Wieses study focused on three teachers and used a multilayered data collection strategy that included open-ended interviews, participant observation, and content analysis of pertinent documents (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). She observed the three teachers across a variety of meetings, including the whole staff, the bilingual team, and the grade-level teachers. In addition, she observed them in the classroom during language arts instruction. Wiese conducted 18 language arts observations across three teachers, each observation ranging from an hour to an hour and half. Throughout all observations, Wiese took detailed scratch notes that were later developed into detailed narrative field notes. In addition, most of the observations were audiotaped and transcribed. Wiese conducted informal open-ended interviews regarding the observations. In addition, each teacher in the study was interviewed three times using a semistructured interview protocol. To develop a more nuanced understanding of the local enactment of educational policy, Wiese conducted semistructured interviews with other key informants: the principal and Title VII coordinator at Monte Vista and a district administrator responsible for bilingual education programs. Data collection began in August 1999 and ended in June 2000.

The three focal teachers in the study were Diana, a kindergarten teacher, and Joyce and Margarita, second-grade teachers. These teachers were selected because they provided a perspective on the relationship between the schools bilingual program and literacy instruction during critical years in the early elementary grades. Kindergarten is the gateway into the bilingual program, and at second grade, there is often a focus on transitioning students from first to second language literacy. All three teachers identified themselves as Latina, spoke Spanish fluently, and held a BCLAD2 teaching credential.

Diana had been teaching for 7 years, 6 at Monte Vista. Her decision to become a bilingual teacher was rooted in her personal history, having witnessed her older sister struggle in English-only school settings. Margarita had been teaching for 9 years, and the year of the study was her second at Monte Vista. Like Diana, her decision to become a bilingual teacher was connected to her personal history, her own schooling experiences in particular. Although Diana was born in the United States, her family moved back to Puerto Rico just as she started high school. Because she struggled with the academic demands of a high school education taught exclusively in Spanish, Diana hoped to use her role as a bilingual teacher to ease the academic transition for immigrant students. Joyce had been teaching for 8 years, and the year of the study was her sixth at Monte Vista. Unlike Diana and Margarita, Joyce did not link her decision to become a bilingual teacher with her personal history. Originally trained as a musician and artist, Joyce eventually pursued teaching because of the financial stability it offered.


District leaders in Walton Unified devised a Proposition 227 implementation plan that maximized flexibility for Westway and Open Valley. The schools could choose between maintaining their bilingual programs through the parental waiver process or developing an English-only program for ELLs called English Language Development (ELD). In this section of the article, we focus on the manner in which ethnographic inquiry revealed the roles that teachers played in the local enactment of bilingual policy.

At Westway, all students who had been in the bilingual program were placed in self-contained ELD classes. The context for Proposition 227 implementation at Westway was shaped by the schools orientation toward English-only instruction and curricular control arrangements. The decision to shift to English-only was made by Beverly, the schools veteran principal. Because there were only two native Spanish-speaking teachers who held the BCLAD at the school, there was very little resistance to eliminating the schools bilingual program. In addition to moving to English only, the school adopted Open Court as the schoolwide language arts series. Open Court aims to teach reading through explicit phonics, dictation, and comprehension exercises. It claims to provide a balanced approach with extensive practice with decodable texts and authentic literature. In addition, a foundation awarded the school a $300,000 grant for regular visits from two Open Court coaches who were employees of Science Research Associates, the publisher of the series. The two Open Court coaches were directly involved with all curricular decisions at the school. They created a school-wide pacing schedule that all teachers were required to follow.

In contrast to Westway, Open Valley showed an overwhelming commitment to the goals of bilingual and multicultural education. In addition, teachers at Open Valley exercised a great deal of curricular freedom. In the fall of 1999, teachers at the school mobilized to secure parental waivers to maintain the bilingual program. Nearly every child who was in a bilingual program prior to the passage of Proposition 227 remained in the schools bilingual program.


Connie, the third-grade teacher at Westway, agreed with much of the political discourse surrounding the English-only and antibilingual education movements. She commented, I totally agree that English should be the language of this country. You need to have some base, and I think English needs to be the base here. A child of Portuguese immigrants, Connie resented the special treatment she felt that Latino and Latina children received and viewed bilingual education as one such special treatment.

Ethnographic examinations of Connies role in Proposition 227 implementation revealed the manner in which the local enactment of policy is influenced by teacher beliefs. Connie believed that her students would experience success if they stopped speaking Spanish in the classroom. During grade-level teacher meetings, Connie voiced this position in comments relating to deficits in the students (Flores, Cousin, & Diaz, 1991; Lipman, 1998). After one grade-level meeting in which Connie claimed these kids are just so low, I asked her to expand upon what she meant by so low. She explained,

The biggest thing I see with this years group is lack of basic school skills. . . . Just basic common sensethings that you learn in kindergarten that a lot of them are really lacking. Almost all of my students come from a home environment whereas often as I see non-academic home situationsa lot of these homes are more so. The homes are justnothing. A lot of illiterate parents.

Her stance toward her students surfaced during curriculum planning meetings as she frequently lobbied the Open Court coaches to allow the teachers to devote more time to basic skills instruction.

Connies ideological alignment with the law and her views about her ELL students played a significant role in the link between policy and practice in her classroom. For example, the exchange described next occurred early in the year during literacy instruction.

Connie told the class that she wanted them to work on their reading comprehension and that they were going to read stories on worksheets that would help them understand other stories better. Connie told the students to place their fingers under the first word and called on individual students to read a story about a snowflake. The story was a part of the first-grade skills practice of the Open Court language arts series. She called on Sonia, who struggled to read the first sentence of the eight-sentence story.

Connie said, OK, Sonia, since Luis is ready to read, I am going to give him a chance. Because of the indirect nature of her request, Luis, a recent immigrant in the class with very strong decoding skills, did not understand Connie. He stared at Sonia and then returned his gaze to the teacher. Connie nodded at him, but he continued to look directly at the teacher seemingly waiting for Sonia to continue reading. A student sitting next to him said in a quiet voice, Tienes que leerlo [You have to read it]. Connie clinched her fist, Ugh, she said with exasperation, Dont say it in Spanish!

This exchange was representative of literacy events in Connies classroom. It demonstrates the core beliefs that guided her approach to classroom literacy instruction: Spanish is a detriment to students academic progress, and what students need most are the basics. The local school context legitimized the way that these beliefs surfaced in her classroom literacy practice. As her students became more resistant and distant based upon their experience with Open Court, she was convinced that they needed more basic instruction and enacted punitive rules for students who used Spanish.


In media accounts of Proposition 227 implementation, the dominant discourse has been one of compliance and evaluation; districts eliminated their bilingual programs, and the success of English-only programs has been measured through student gains on standardized tests (Thompson et al., 2002). Although teacher compliance and policy evaluation form part of the picture, ethnographic perspectives on policy implementation show the type of deep-dish analysis (Brodkin, 2000) needed to understand the nuanced implications of policy shifts.

One possibility for ethnographic research is to expand the focus beyond compliance to include teachers reaction and resistance to reforms. At Open Valley, Angelicas experiences of the policy shift demonstrate the manner in which teachers actions in and out of the classroom serve as a counternarrative to the logic and discourse of policy (Hammersley, 2000). Angelica believed that Proposition 227 was a direct challenge to her core values and felt that the assumption behind the law was that teachers dont know what is best for the children. She had chosen the field of bilingual education because she wanted to shield Latino and Latina students from the shame and humiliation that she experienced in English-only schools. She thus interpreted Proposition 227 as an attempt to take voice away from the Latino/Latina community. She was particularly critical of other Latino and Latina voters, whom she believed had usurped parents rights in attempting to prohibit bilingual education: Who are you to speak for somebody else? Thats your opinion and maybe you dont want to be bilingual and maybe you fell in love with this culture and left your past behind. Angelica viewed her work at the school as a way to speak for those who had been silenced during the passage of Proposition 227. In the first year of Proposition 227 implementation, she played a central role in organizing parent forums to communicate information about the parental waiver process.

Angelicas classroom literacy instruction built upon the social and academic strengths of her students, and during the process, she learned a great deal about their parents, siblings, and home environments. She used her knowledge of the students to help them negotiate the stories they read. Angelica believed that reading comprehension would improve if students were able to see themselves in the story, and thus used questioning strategies that facilitated student participation (Cazden, 1988; Garcia, 1999; Jimenez & Gersten, 1999). These strategies are evidenced in the exchange that follows.

Six boys are seated at the reading table. The boys are about to read the story Enrique y Pancho.

Angelica tells the students that they are going to read a story about a narrator who is an only child, and she wants them to think about what life might be like for an only child. To do this, she has developed a graphic organizer that asks students to compare life in a big family and life in a small family. The following exchange occurs as she solicits examples from the students that characterized life in big families.

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This exchange and the questioning strategy used by Angelica demonstrated the space that she created for students home cultures in literacy instruction. By capitalizing on her knowledge of Cesars home life from the visits she had made there, Angelica gave him a way to be a meaningful participant in a discussion that he had otherwise started to ignore. Her awareness of Cesars social and cultural world served as an instructional life preserver, allowing him to construct a response. Literacy research has long documented that making space in the official curriculum for the lives of students opens up new avenues for students learning (Dyson, 1993). Angelicas decisions in literacy instruction represented her commitments to creating a meaning-centered literacy learning context for her students.

Proposition 227 strengthened Angelicas resolve to maintain a classroom that values bilingualism and biculturalism in instruction. This enactment was made possible through the interaction of the local school context and Angelicas actions in that context. She resisted the direct instructional implications of Proposition 227 and created classroom practices that reflected her instructional goals and ideological commitments.


The San Tomas study illustrates that the ethnographic method can reveal how school, district, state, and federal policy is enacted in the local context of one bilingual school, Monte Vista. This enactment was marked by multiple voices: those of the three focal teachersDiana, Joyce, and Margaritaand those of their colleagues, the administration, and students. The findings presented in this section focus first on the district-and school-level responses and then briefly explore the classroom context.


The teachers reflected various understandings of how Proposition 227 affected Monte Vistas bilingual program, but for the most part, they described the impact as minimal. Joyce, the kindergarten teacher, explained, I dont think much did happen. It seems that it [Proposition 227] happened and schools kept right on doing what they have been doing. And it doesnt seem like any parents have been saying, Why is it that you have been teaching in Spanish?

Because the district superintendent was a very vocal and public advocate of the program, teachers and school administrators felt confident that bilingual education would continue. Still, the districts official Proposition 227 response was a careful orchestration of legal mandates to justify how bilingual education programs could still be offered. In a letter dated July 22, 1998, the superintendent reassured parents, It is important for you to know that our decision to continue our bilingual programs is not a defiant act against Proposition 227. Instead because San Tomas Unified School District (STUSD) is required to comply with the consent decree,3 it also has latitude to provide students with equal access to the core instruction through existing programs (p. 1, 1997 district document). The district continued to provide bilingual education programs with the option for structured English immersiona program of English instruction not described in detail in the text of Proposition 227 except to require that instruction be nearly all in English.

The district had long advocated promoting native language instruction. In 1997, as part of a systemwide Title VII grant, STUSD set out to restructure the districts bilingual education programs, focusing on 17 schools in particular, to develop language programs whose goals are to support all students in their development of competence in English and an additional language(s) (1997 district document).

When Monte Vista elected to become one of the 17 schools with a bilingual program, the Bilingual Academys description of the two-way immersion was quite broad, identifying outcome goals and target student populations. According to the Bilingual Academy, both English-proficient students and ELLs were to participate, and the goals were to facilitate the development of bilingualism and biliteracy. In terms of delivery, students would have the opportunity to develop competency in both English and another language and to use the two languages to access the core curriculum (1999 district document).

The STUSD description of two-way immersion resembled the 90:10 model developed by the California Department of Education during the 1980s, in which 90% of instruction is provided in the minority language during the first year of the program. This percentage decreases as the grade levels increase until a 50%-50% balance is reached in the third or fourth grade. The 90:10 model was adopted by various schools and became one of the primary variants of two-way programs (August & Hakuta, 1997, p. 155).

Research has found that individual districts and schools have used a wide range of approaches in implementing two-way immersion (Baker, 2001; Crawford, 1999; Lindholm, 1990; Lindholm-Leary, 2001). Monte Vista was no exception. The school struggled to define what two-way immersion meant in their particular context, given the diversity of the student population. We explore their struggles in the next section.


At the school level, the principal and the Title VII coordinator were powerful forces in influencing how bilingual education policy was enacted. Elena, the principal, believed that public schools should reflect the broader diversity of society, and at Monte Vista, this meant attracting European American families to neighborhood public schools.4 She believed that African American, European American, and Latino/Latina students should be able to participate in an instructional program that aimed for bilingualism and biliteracy for all students:

My whole goal was to create balanced diversity. I knew at the time that Spanish immersion was really something attractive to your middle-class population because they value it and know the importance of second language acquisition. And it really angers me and upsets me that people say that African American children or children of color other than Latino cant handle a second language because they academically cant do it. I really wanted to get some of those kids into the program, to create a diverse population in general education and bilingual education.

The officially constructed policy as represented in school documents outlined broad guidelines for instruction across the grades by focusing on the distribution of instruction in Spanish and English. This distribution, described in terms of percentage of language use or particular subject areas, mirrored the description provided by the Bilingual Academy.


When describing students language and literacy abilities, the staff focused on skills-based definitions of reading and writing. European American students from middle- and upper-middle class backgrounds were generally described as coming to school with strong literacy skills. Latino/Latina and African American students were described as lacking this literacy base. Elena pointed out a distinction among the English speakers: [There are] some children that come with highly enriched literacy backgrounds as opposed to children that come with hardly any literacy. Eduardo, the schools Title VII coordinator, noted this distinction as well: There is some friction . . . we have underachieving kids and overachieving kids. Given a commitment to balanced diversity, and the range of language and literacy abilities among the student population, the staff decided on a series of agreements, or informal policies, regarding outcome goals and literacy instruction for the two-way immersion model.

Informal policies were articulated primarily during bilingual team meetings and were described by the focal teachers and key administrators during interviews. As the staff moved away from the traditional two-way immersion model, they articulated a distinction between the ideal outcome of biliteracy and bilingualism for all students and the reality-driven outcome of English language literacy and oral bilingualism for some students. Monte Vista adapted the district 90:10 two-way immersion policy with modifications that they deemed necessary given the student population at the school. At Monte Vista, native English-speaking students who are struggling with literacy will be provided ENGLISH READING instruction (Monte Vista program description, 1999-2000). As Eduardo explained, We decided that by the end of kindergarten if the child is in the two-way immersion program and theyre not where they need to be in terms of language arts skills, then the next year, starting in first grade, they will receive reading instruction in English.

In kindergarten, all students would receive literacy instruction in Spanish. At the end of kindergarten, teachers would identify English speakers struggling with Spanish literacy. Then, during first and second grade, bilingual teachers would provide English literacy instruction for those students. Starting in first grade, literacy instruction was to be developed and delivered in two languages, Spanish and English.

The informal policies created dilemmas for teachers as they attempted to create instruction to meet the needs of their students. The principal explained,

Its a really difficult instructional delivery model for teachers. Its complex, and some teachers have a lot of problems with it. Its not clean. With immersion, you teach three hours of solid Spanish instruction. And then you move into your English instruction. Well, really clean and you know which stuff youre teaching. Our model means you have to teach literacy in two languages. And, its like this huge dilemma for the teachers how to deliver the instruction.

Although not articulated in any formal school document, these informal policies were recorded during an officially sanctioned school meeting and were recognized as agreed-upon provisions within the school community. The staff articulated informal policies for each key element of the two-way immersion model: outcome goals, instruction, and student placement. The staff used these informal policies to meet the needs of a diverse student population within the structure of a two-way immersion program. It represented an adaptation of policy in light of a particular school context, illustrating what happens when policy meets practice. Still, how did each of the focal teachers address these informal policies within the context of language arts instruction? The following section shows how Diana, Joyce, and Margarita translated these informal policies into language and literacy goals for their students.


The informal school policies created unique dilemmas for each of the teachers. At each grade level, there were specific implications of the instructional decisions that teachers made. Such decisions reflected not only the English and Spanish literacy abilities of the students in their class but also both ideal and reality-driven goals of the program.

As a kindergarten teacher, Diana was not expected to provide literacy instruction in two languages. As she explained, They just want us to give them the Spanish this year, so thats what were doing. Dianas language arts curriculum focused on providing Spanish literacy instruction to all students, building a base regardless of their native language. In this way, the informal school policies provided Diana with a clear course of action to take.

As second-grade teachers, Joyce and Margarita were faced with the challenge of providing language arts instruction in two languages. Their instructional decisions were largely influenced by the schools informal policy regarding differentiated outcome goals for students. Each teacher cast instructional decisions based upon their understanding of the language and literacy abilities of their students.

Although Joyce and Margarita were both second-grade teachers, they delineated individual language arts goals for their students that responded in different ways to the informal school policies. For literacy goals, they distinguished among students with respect to native language first, then perceived academic ability. They made an additional distinction among high English speakers: whether the students were recent arrivals to the program. Although Margarita had students who were recent arrivals and others who had been in the program since kindergarten, Joyce had only recent arrivals. These distinctions mirrored the informal school policy of differentiated outcome goals, a deviation from the two-way immersion model, and shaped the nature of instruction during language arts. Joyce opted for whole-group instruction within two designated language arts times, 1 hour in Spanish and 1 hour in English, for all students. This decision was rooted in her belief that all Spanish speakers should make a transition to English, and the perception that whole-group instruction is easier to manage.

In contrast, Margarita decided to focus on four reading groups as the key activity during language arts: a beginning Spanish reading group for the high English speakers new to the program, a Spanish immersion reading group for both high and low Spanish speakers and the remaining high English speakers, and an English reading group for the low English speakers. Margaritas design was grounded in her commitment to the two-way immersion program goals of bilingualism and biliteracy for all while still accommodating the need for English instruction for some students as delineated in the informal school policies. She also believed that such differentiated groups would better address the needs of students as opposed to whole-group instruction. Joyce and Margarita came to enact the two-way immersion model and the informal school policies in the context of their classrooms, both in the goals that they set for their students and in the manner in which they approached instruction.


In this article, we have illustrated the role that ethnographic research can play in understanding crucial elements of educational policy and practice. We have done so by presenting select findings of two small-scale studies that employed ethnographic methods to examine shifts in policy for ELLs in California. Calls for relevance in educational research have often included assertions that ethnographic research does not contribute to the real work of improving educational practice. Such calls often claim that scientific research based on a medical model present the best hope for answering important questions in the field. In the current political and research context, educational researchers find themselves facing an increasingly narrow definition of what counts as useful research. Although we agree in part with Ravitch (1998) regarding the benefits derived from experimental research in medicine, we disagree that the medical model provides a blueprint for educational research and practice. Although the connection between medical research and practice worked for Ravitch, the process was not seamless for Lia Lee, the Hmong child for whom scientific standards of recognizing and treating illness served little benefit. Lias doctors could draw from outcome-based research regarding the treatment of epilepsy, but there was scant research to help them consider the manner in which their medical knowledge might play out in the day-to-day lives of patients and their families (Fadiman, 1997). The case of Lia confirms in dramatic detail the conclusions reached by Smedley, Stith, and Nelson (2003) in their Institute of Medicine report: that racial and ethnic communities receive unequal treatment in health care contexts. The report outlines three possible causes for this treatment gap: (1) bias and prejudice against minorities, (2) clinical uncertainty on the part of doctors in interacting with minority patients, and (3) stereotypes held by providers regarding behavior or health of diverse patients. As medical researchers continue to examine ways to reduce this treatment gap, they might benefit from methodological approaches that illuminate the perspectives and interpretations of doctors and their patients. In this article, we have highlighted the particular strengths that ethnographic methods bring to understanding the local enactment of education policy.

The findings from our studies indicate that the ethnographic techniques yielded a rich ground-level perspective of policy meeting practice. If educational research is to be meaningful to all stakeholders, then a deep understanding of the conditions faced by teachers and administrators must be part of the process.

In an era in which high-profile reforms dominate the educational landscape, a great deal can be learned by examining the day-to-day lives of teachers and students in the classroom. In Walton Unified, our research suggests that use of ethnographic methods can uncover the situated logic of teachers and offer explanations of why practice takes shape in the way that it does. Such was the case with Connie, the third-grade teacher from the Walton Unified study, whose attempt to stop students from using Spanish while implementing a reductionist language arts curriculum (Gutierrez, Baquedano-Lopez, & Asato, 2000) was rooted in her beliefs about her students and their home language and culture.

A very different approach was taken by Angelica, who strongly resisted Proposition 227 in her school. Close examination of her work at the school shows how ethnographic investigations of policy can represent views that are often obscured by other perspectives on policy implementation. Resistance to antibilingual initiatives has become an important part of the landscape and work of some teachers; large-scale examinations of test scores in controlled studies obscure such aspects of teachers work. Thus, the manner for understanding the policy-to-practice connection was not simply whether the policy was being properly implementeda view embodied in correctionalist perspectives of policy research. Rather, the policys implementation was influenced by a variety of contextual factors. In the case of Proposition 227 in Walton Unified, the teachers individual qualities and political views played a crucial role in shaping the enactment. In this sense, ethnographic research allowed us to delineate important factors in the policy-to-practice connectionsfactors that are largely ignored by correctionalist perspectives.

In addition to showing how teachers shape policy implementation, our research indicates that policy is, in reality, constructed in nested contexts as it is realized in moment-to-moment interactions. In San Tomas, this phenomenon was at work in the set of informal policies created by teachers attempting to meet the needs of their students. The informal policies and teachers use of them represented the negotiated reality of educational practice at Monte Vista. Our understanding of the realities of practice faced by the teachers of Monte Vista would have been missed if we had adopted a medical model of policy research.

Examining how these moment-to-moment decisions and interactions take place was central to understanding the full implications of recent policy shifts in the area of bilingual education. The deep-dish examinations of bilingual education policy offered a clearer picture of practice. Levinson and Sutton (2001) argued that to fully understand policy implementation, we must explore practice as a phenomenon of situated social behavior in which individuals and groups are constrained and enabled by organizational structures and policy realities. This socially dynamic perspective allows us to examine the ways in which educational policy not only constrains but also enables teachers. Accurately understanding the conditions in which teachers enact reforms provides important knowledge for those interested in educational change.

The ways in which teachers were constrained and enabled were evident in the San Tomas study. The findings of the study indicated that the schools adoption of a two-way immersion program as a way to serve language minority students became considerably more complex when enacted by teachers, administrators, and students in classroom settings. The schools commitment to balanced diversity in the two-way immersion program led to informal policies that veered from the traditional model. This created tension for teachers as they tried to reconcile the model and informal policy in creating a language arts curriculum.

In California, bilingual education faces a major challenge in responding to the antibilingual education initiative, Proposition 227. Rather than clarifying policy and practice issues, the new law has caused considerable instability for educators as they attempt to meet the needs of linguistically diverse students (Garcia & Curry-Rodriguez, 2000). Instead of presenting a single vision of policy and practice for bilingual students that could be easily translated into quantifiable variables, our research suggests that policy implementation is necessarily a complex process. Our findings indicate that multiple factorsteachers, local contexts, political and pedagogical perspectives, and concurrent educational policiesinteract to shape policy implementation. Although the interaction of these factors may seem unwieldy, ignoring them leads to an oversimplified view of the manifold ways in which educational policy is implemented in real classrooms.

We would like to thank Mark Windschitl and Debbie Pfeifer, two colleagues who read earlier versions of this piece.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 6, 2006, p. 1106-1131
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12519, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 5:16:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Tom Stritikus
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    TOM STRITIKUS is assistant professor in the College of Education, University of Washington. He earned his Ph.D. in 2000 from the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of the book Immigrant Children and the Politics of English-Only, published by LFB Scholarly Publishing and edited by Professors Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco. His teaching and research focuses on policy and practice issues for culturally and linguistically diverse students. He has published articles in the Bilingual Research Journal, the International Journal of Bilingual Education, and the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education.
  • Ann-Marie Wiese
    ANN-MARIE WIESE is a research associate with the Teacher Professional Development Program at WestEd. Most recently, she has published an article on two-way immersion in the International Journal of Language and Education. Her interest in the education of language minority students has expanded to include early childhood education, and a chapter coauthored with Eugene Garcia, Ph.D., will appear in the most recent edition of the Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children (Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates). Dr. Wiese is also is a member of a national research team investigating the impact of National Board-certified teachers on low-performing schools.
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