By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
here are unquestionably bilingual-education programs that work, but the examples are more readily apparent in research than in reality. Even at Eastman, the results are equivocal. Eastman fourth-graders tested in Spanish outshine other district students who are tested in Spanish. They even exceed national averages in some categories when compared with other limited-English, Spanish-speaking students. But test these children in English, and a different picture emerges. The scores of Eastman fifth-graders, many of whom have been in bilingual ed for six years, were downright dreadful. Where a rank of 50 is the national average, Eastman students received a 15 in reading, a 21 in math, a 22 in language and a 9 in spelling. There’s no data available to answer whether these students’ scores would rebound in later years, after longer exposure to English.
Assessing bilingual education is even more difficult because of shoddy record keeping, oversight and analysis.
L.A. Unified, for example, has concentrated its limited internal oversight on the front end of the bilingual program, on identifying students with limited English skills and getting them into a program. Once students were enrolled, the district took it on faith that the education was appropriate. Individual students are usually monitored, but little has been done to take stock of group results. After all, the state ed department has already "determined" what works and what doesn’t.
The school system never even bothered to follow the evaluation directives of its 1988 "Master Plan" for bilingual education, which promised that "data will be available for individual students and [groups] of students progressing through the various bilingual programs" and that "students’ academic achievement and progress will be compared within, between, and among programs . . . to ensure that the program goals can be met." It just never happened. The school board approved a revised bilingual plan two years ago, in part to specifically address the issue of accountability. But those particular directives, which occupy some 42 single-spaced pages, seem to have been ignored.
Nor has effective oversight come from elsewhere. State supervision never evolved much past getting school districts to follow the approved recipe of hiring bilingual teachers and offering native-language instruction. And federal review also has fallen short, despite more than $6 million in annual federal grants for bilingual programs. Though every grant includes funds as well as guidelines for evaluation, these workups often have a pro forma, incestuous aspect to them. In some cases, local program directors choose their own evaluators or evaluate their programs themselves. But just as importantly, neither the school district nor anyone else could even provide most of these evaluations. A spokeswoman for the federal education department was unable to determine where — or even whether — records of such evaluations were maintained, and suggested trying the local school district.
As for L.A. Unified, the internal record keeping for these grants borders on disgraceful. In preparation for this story, the Weekly assigned two researchers to obtain documentation for every federally funded bilingual program in the school district. Despite daily telephone calls for more than a month — and the full cooperation of the district’s communications office and some senior administrators — evaluations and grant applications could be obtained for only three of the 17 current federal programs. And for one of these, only two of the four annual evaluations could be located. The situation was even worse for grant programs that had been completed. No records turned up at all for these — and the millions of dollars’ worth of expenditures they represented. Part of the problem for Weekly researchers was clearly bureaucratic intransigence. Take this exchange with a midlevel bureaucrat whom the Weekly had been specifically referred to by district administrators for stats on bilingual students. (The administrator’s name is omitted only because his attitude was so typical that it didn’t seem equitable to single him out over others.)
After establishing that federal law requires school districts to monitor the progress of limited-English students who are re-classified as fluent in English, Weekly researcher Jade Chang asked how this monitoring was done.
A: Every school does it themselves.
Q: There are no federal regulations or guidelines?
A: No, every school does it their own way. Sometimes it’s by GPA, sometimes it’s testing, teacher reports, things like that.
Q: What kind of testing?
A: I don’t know. Every school does it differently.
Q: So the district doesn’t have any sort of guidelines on this.
(The researcher then wanted to know if students from the bilingual program are compared with students who receive instruction in English. The administrator grew increasingly discomfited and annoyed.)
A: We don’t do that.
Q: So there are no kinds of testing on redesignated kids at all?
A: You’ll have to be more specific . . . I’m unwilling to comment on this because every time I say something it is misunderstood and distorted, and when it’s printed it means something completely different, and then I have to answer everyone’s questions and answer to my supervisors and write a whole round of memos. I don’t want to talk about it.
Q: Well, can you tell me if any kinds of tests are done on redesignated kids?