Findings from a new Stanford Graduate School of Education study on the benefits of Ohlone Elementary School's Mandarin immersion program might just convince any naysayers of expanding the program in Palo Alto Unified School District.
Fourth- and fifth-grade students who participate in Ohlone's Mandarin immersion program leave with a level of linguistic competency comparable to that of Palo Alto high schoolers taking AP-level Mandarin courses, the group of Stanford researchers found. Some of the elementary school students even outperformed the teenagers in reading.
"We were really surprised how strong the immersion-language learners emerged when compared with the high school students stronger than we had imagined," said Amado Padilla, a professor of psychological studies in education who led the study.
Ohlone's Mandarin immersion program began eight years ago as a controversial pilot program with only 40 students. Today, it's an incredibly popular and in-demand program, with 124 students by the 2012-2013 school year.
The Stanford researchers have been studying the program since its inception, producing in 2013 a research paper that showed how the Ohlone Mandarin immersion students were not falling behind in mathematics, science and other subjects and performed as well as their non-immersion peers on standardized tests.
For this new study the first to compare exiting elementary immersion students in any language with high schoolers studying the same language, Stanford said the researchers looked at 48 Ohlone students, 20 of whom were "heritage learners," meaning they were raised in a home where Mandarin is spoken, or they understand Mandarin to some degree. They tested this group and compared them to 119 high school students taking AP Mandarin, 71 of whom are heritage learners. All students were tested in listening, reading, writing and speaking Mandarin using a STAndards-based Measurement of Proficiency (STAMP) test.
Another interesting finding was that there was little difference between Ohlone's heritage learners and those who had no previous exposure to the language.
The study found that only a few non-heritage speakers in the high school world language program continued to AP Level 5, yet most non-heritage speakers who remained in the immersion program for the full duration performed as well, or nearly as well, as the heritage speakers when exiting the program.
The researchers do, however, note that the study drew from a relatively small sample size and from upper-middle class suburban students in a "district known to be excellent." They called for more studies on the topic.
The Stanford study comes on the heels of the Palo Alto Board of Education's decision earlier this year to, for the first time, offer Mandarin immersion at the middle school level, bringing a gap in curriculum that many students and parent previously struggled to bridge on their own.
Jordan Middle School, which also houses a Spanish immersion program, will host the pilot program this fall. Modeled after the Spanish program, the pilot Mandarin class would be offered for one hour, four days a week, to students who graduated from the Ohlone program.
"The new research data lends support for Mandarin courses at the middle-school level to position 5th grade immersion graduates to advance to a higher level of Mandarin proficiency once they reach high school, where advanced placement programs are increasingly common," the university press release reads.
And Palo Alto is not alone: The number of Chinese language programs in the United States for learners of all ages, from elementary school through adulthood, has dramatically increased in the past two decades, the study notes. This number tripled between 1995 and 2005 and has continued to increase during the last 10 years. By June 2014, approximately 149 schools mostly elementary offered Mandarin immersion programs, with the largest number on the West Coast.
However, one argument against such programs is that they "spend education dollars on too few students at the expense of a school's larger population," the university noted in its press release.
Padilla said he hopes the new research findings can be used to plan, roll out and sustain "well-articulated sequential learning programs that begin in the early grades and continue throughout students' K-12 learning experience," the press release notes.