Bilingual Bickering

In the two years since California voters largely ended bilingual education by approving Proposition 227, test scores among students with limited English skills have risen substantially. In some districts and grades, the gains have been dramatic.

Measure author Ron Unz and other supporters are now saying a collective "I told you so," citing the scores as proof that children learn better in English immersion programs than in bilingual programs, where most of the day's instruction is in their native tongues.

Those claims of victory even prompted a recent front page article in The New York Times, trumpeting "Test Scores Rise, Surprising Critics of Bilingual Ban." The article ran in dozens of newspapers across the country, and many more used the information in editorials criticizing bilingual education. That blitz is sure to help Unz hit his latest target, Arizona, where voters in November will decide whether to end bilingual education there.

"It's hard for them to admit this has had a tremendously positive impact on test scores," Unz, referring to bilingual education supporters, said in a telephone interview with SN&R.

The rising test scores among Limited English Proficient (LEP) students run counter to the doomsday predictions offered during the 1998 campaign by supporters of bilingual education, who cast Prop. 227 as merely the latest in a trio of heartless ballot box attacks on immigrants in California.

In other words, the sky didn't fall. Immigrant students weren't just thrown into English-only classrooms, forgotten and forced to endure teachers yammering away in a language they didn't understand while the rest of the class was actually learning.

Yet educators and analysts say it's way too soon to say the dismantling of bilingual programs has actually improved the education of immigrant students. There have been so many educational reforms in the last few years-lower class sizes, a switch to phonics, new English language development standards, increased per-pupil funding, standardized testing, greater teacher accountability-that it's tough to sort out where the credit lies.

Nonetheless, the issue of bilingual education has become so politicized and emotion-packed that there seems little room for such nuances or ambiguity.

Fun with numbers

There's little doubt that LEP students are doing better in school, a reality reflected not just in test scores on the Stanford 9 tests taken by all American students, but also in increasing fluency rates reported by some districts.

Statewide, LEP students this year showed test score increases across the board since 1998, ranging from increases of just one percentile point in 11th grade reading and language, 10th grade reading and 8th grade spelling to 14 percentile points in second and third grade math scores and a 10-point increase in third grade language scores.

"In less than two years, the immigrant students increased their mean test scores by 40 percent," said Unz of selected grades, also noting the biggest gains came in districts that moved quickly to end bilingual programs. "The pattern of increase follows the pattern of compliance with 227."

Yet Unz's narrow focus and anecdotal reasoning don't tell the whole story, especially considering LEP scores still lag far behind overall scores.

"I don't think we have enough information to make an attribution for any of the test scores," said Doug Stone of the California Department of Education. "Across the board, with every category, every grade, every subgroup, scores have gone up, and they went up most in the early grades."

In fact, Stone pointed out non-LEP students have actually seen bigger point increases than LEP students, even though the percentage increases for LEP students are greater because their scores were initially so dismal.

"We're taking a precautionary status because it's only been two years," said David Sanchez, the secretary-treasurer of the California Teachers Association and a bilingual education teacher from Santa Maria. "We need a better study and more time."

While young students made big gains, older LEP students didn't. Unz said that's because older students have already been corrupted by bilingual program, while opponents say it could indicate students aren't fully comprehending what they have been regurgitating on tests.

Disparities in test scores are stark in Sacramento County, where eighth grade LEP students have actually seen their test scores fall, with the national percentile rank of its scores in reading, math and language all below 1998 levels.

At the same time, some grades have seen dramatic increases. Second grade LEP students in Sacramento County hit the 48th percentile of national scores in spelling (up from the 33rd in 1998), the 48th in math (up from the 32nd), 40th in reading (up from 29th) and the 34th in language (up from 27th).

Of the 43 grade and test slots from the Stanford 9, in Sacramento County, 25 scores improved from 1999 to 2000, 14 stayed the same and four dropped. Yet even if we conclude LEP students are doing better, that doesn't mean we can necessarily attribute those gains to Prop. 227.

Complex reality

Although his recent rhetoric has been bold and decisive when it comes to the aftermath of Prop. 227, even Unz will admit that it's too soon to conclude from test scores that English immersion-in which LEP students have a year of intensive English training before going into regular classes--improves education.

"In no way am I claiming that the sole reason for the rise in test scores was Prop. 227," Unz said. "There is no way to ever prove anything, but there is a pattern."

Yet even if there is a pattern of improvement, educators point to a half-dozen other educational reforms adopted around 1998 that could also explain the gains. The reality is Prop. 227 was part of a large package.

Smaller class sizes in the lower grades could explain why those scores increased, and so could increased focus and resources being put to education, or the switch in most school districts from a whole language method for teaching reading to one based on phonics. Beyond those obvious statewide factors, there have also been local changes.

Nancy Law, director of research and evaluations for the Sacramento City Unified School District, said the district in 1998 adopted intensive new reading instruction designed to improve the comprehension skills of all students, include LEP students.

"One of the things that's driving the increases is the district says we want all students to be able to read at grade level," Law said.

New English language development standards also came on the scene just as bilingual education was being phased out, which more carefully track progress in learning English, allowing teachers to hone in on students having problems.

"I think those standards have had the biggest impact," said Isabell Johnson, who heads the English Language Learner program for San Juan Unified School District.

The increased focus on LEP students, in and of itself, could also be helping. "If they are really working on the language, then the students will do well, regardless of whether they are in a bilingual or immersion program," Sanchez said.

And then there is the question of whether rising test scores among LEP students is actually a gauge of improving education. Not only was the Stanford 9 not designed to gauge the progress of LEP students, but the practice of "teaching to the test" could skew results.

"You can't dismiss test preparation. Part of doing well on a test is knowing how to take a test," Stone said.

Yet for all the ambiguities right now, there are efforts underway to better gauge the progress of LEP students, including a statewide English Language Development test that will debut in the spring. Many districts also plans controlled studies to gauge differences between bilingual and immersion programs. Both proponents and opponents of 227 have done some such studies, with each side producing the expected conflicting results.

Paul Tuss, a research specialist with San Juan Unified School District, which will study the issue later this year, said early anecdotal evidence shows students in immersion programs are outperforming those still in bilingual education (Prop. 227 allowed parents to request their children remain in bilingual programs).

"The feeling of the teachers and people involved think bilingual education is great," Tuss said, "but the data doesn't necessarily show that it improves learning."

Always political

Unz may have re-politicized the issue of bilingual education, but this was an issue that had political underpinnings from its inception. Modern bilingual education programs arose to address an educational system that was neglecting Latinos and other immigrant students.

"Bilingual education today has its real roots in the civil rights movement of the '60s," said Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Educators.

Rather than being a means of maintaining cultural identity-as some see bilingual programs-Pompa said it began simply as the only effective way of teaching kids who couldn't understand English. From there, its significance grew to incorporate the multi-lingual demands of an increasingly interconnected world.

"We're one of the few countries that doesn't teach at least two languages in school," noted Pompa.

So bilingual education became a symbol of multiculturalism, which is why it received the knee-jerk support of many on the Left once it was under attack. Opposing Prop. 227 became a matter of liberal orthodoxy in 1998, especially coming as it did after two truly anti-immigrant initiatives: Propositions 187 (which denied many government services to immigrants) and 209 (which ended affirmative action in state government).

Unz agrees that 187 and 209 caused 227 to be seen as just another attack on immigrants: "I was the first to admit that it was arguably the worst time in the history of California to push an issue as racially charged as ending bilingual education."

The measure was opposed by most educational groups and leading politicians from both major parties, and condemned on the editorial pages of California's biggest newspapers. Most of the opposition to the measure focused on its symbolic measure, rather than the actual mechanics of teaching children.

"Bilingual education was viewed as one of the great Latino victories of the late-60s," noted Unz. "Part of what happened was the bilingual programs were set up with the best of intentions?and by the time it was clear they didn't work, the infrastructure was in place and it was difficult to change."

Few voters had any real insight into or experience with the best way to teach immigrant children, leaving them open to emotional ploys or competing claims of expertise, something that drives many initiative battles.

"There has certainly been a lot of hyperbole in initiative campaigns for a long time," said Ted Lascher, a professor at Sacramento State University who specializes in the initiative process. "It's hard to get people's attention, and hyperbole does that."

"If the Unz initiative is adopted, the impact will be costly, chaotic, and perhaps irreversible. Worst of all, millions of children will suffer," the National Association of Bilingual Educators warned at the time.

Yet Unz said opposition to the measure was soft, driven mostly by self-interested bilingual education advocates: "A strong group of people who are vehement about something can overcome big groups that don't feel strongly about an issue."

That same observation could probably be made of Unz's crusade against bilingual education. Lascher said English-only measures tend to be supported by voters for emotional and symbolic reasons. Yet, given that experts are divided, does the average voter know how to most effectively educate immigrant students?

"Is it a good way to make policy?" Lascher questioned. "I don't think so."

Nonetheless, while the debate rages over Prop. 227's impacts on California, Arizona voters will in November decide whether to do away with bilingual education, and they could soon be followed by voters in Colorado, Massachusetts and New York, Unz's next targets.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.