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In fact, it hasn’t fared well — at least not as far as one can determine given the lack of comprehensive data.
Critics like to point out that only about 6.5 percent of California’s limited-English students were redesignated as fluent in English last year. In L.A. Unified, the number is 8 percent. That’s bad enough, but not quite as bad as it sounds when you consider that the "textbook" bilingual program is meant to be five to seven years long. To redesignate all limited-English speakers as fluent in five to seven years, you’d only need an annual rate of about 16.7 percent. So, the state is doing a bit less than half as well as it should by its own standards. And L.A. Unified’s numbers represent a vast and recent surge over past performance, when the redesignation rate was as low as 3.3 percent.
But at its core, the debate over the pace of English fluency presents a false dilemma. Over time, bilingual programs generally succeed at the goal of producing English speakers. While one could argue that the transition should come earlier — and that students could learn more English faster — no student who spends 12 years in L.A. Unified emerges unable to speak conversational English. The problem is that you’ll find lots of students, in and out of bilingual ed, whose academic achievement, as measured by test scores, is abysmal. Except in selected cases, bilingual education hasn’t resulted in literate, well-educated students, and, remember, academic achievement rather than learning English quickly has been the real goal of the state’s bilingual-education program all along. Moreover, the Latino dropout rate is still at least 30 percent.
There are some legitimate explanations: student poverty, parents’ lack of literacy and a shortage of bilingual teachers, not to mention student transiency. And per-pupil spending in California lags behind most of the nation. But that is not the whole story.
Former state Superintendent Honig noted that for years there were no serious discussions at the state level on tracking the progress of students — bilingual or otherwise — in order to hold local school districts accountable, a failing that hampered the entire public school system. In its good-faith attempt to provide extra funding to help bilingual students, the state even created a penalty for success. As soon as a student became fluent, a school district would lose supplemental funding, about $224 per student in LAUSD last year. Honig also made the case that effective bilingual education was undermined by the same teaching strategies that he and other critics blame for plunging reading scores in English-only classes: the once-popular "whole language" methods.
Whole language, as it came to be widely practiced, relied on an almost magical acquisition of reading skills, the idea being that if children were surrounded with rich literature, they would eventually absorb intuitively the skills necessary to read. In the whole-language make-over of classrooms, old-fashioned, often tedious "See Jane run" readers got tossed on the dust heap. In many instances, administrators even banned the use of phonics, the process of decoding words by learning the sounds made by letters.ä
In theory, whole language was not all bad. In practice, its rapid introduction left many teachers with neither materials nor techniques to teach children how to read. Not only did whole language supplant phonics in the 1980s, but it also left its mark on bilingual-ed theory and curriculum, at least in California, thanks to the influence of charismatic academics such as Stephen Krashen, whose oar stirred both intellectual currents.
Across the state, the pendulum has now shifted vigorously away from whole language, except perhaps in bilingual-education departments. One section of L.A. Unified’s current blueprint for bilingual-ed programs reads like a testimonial to whole-language methods.
But the issue is not purely a pedagogical one. In California, the vast majority of English-learners are Latino. Many vividly recall the not-too-distant bad old days before bilingual education, when children were punished or derided for speaking Spanish. Many, therefore, consider bilingual ed, and the cultural affirmation embodied in the program, a much-needed salve for discriminatory practices.
"Bilingual education has done more for the self-esteem of kids in this community than anything else," said Soberanes, the bilingual coordinator at Eastman. And both research and common sense support the notion that children learn more effectively in culturally supportive environments.
In the domain of cultural affirmation, educators have largely succeeded, by celebrating students’ diverse backgrounds and elevating Spanish and those who speak it from a second-tier status. But in the absence of a focus on student achievement, the emphasis on students’ self-image ("self-confidence" is one of the three main goals of L.A. Unified’s bilingual plan) has not translated into concrete results. Critics charge that bilingual programs have become a sort of curricular equivalent of Black History Month, emphasizing culture and self-esteem, and then declaring the battle won.
When politicians and educators began to press for results or reforms, the bilingual establishment — and Latino political leaders — resisted. Some of this misguided recalcitrance was certainly principled, but special-interest lobbyists also had their say. The state spends about $331 million a year on bilingual ed, and many millions more go into the pipeline from general-education funds due to the sheer numbers of limited-English speakers. In recent years, the Latino caucus in the Legislature had enough clout to shoot down bilingual-ed reform in Sacramento, legislation that could have prevented Proposition 227 from ever taking shape.
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?
A: You have to be more specific. Which tests do you mean?
Q: Tests to see how the redesignated kids are doing?
A: I can’t talk about that. I’d have to make sure that I can talk about these things.
In the end, the data made available by the district does not necessarily prove what it is purported to. Take the results of an internal study released with some fanfare in March. District analysts announced that students in native-language programs had higher test scores in English than similar students who’d learned in English. The study compared students who’d been in the same school from kindergarten through fifth grade, identifying 8,393 students whose course work was mainly in Spanish and 3,630 students with classes mainly in English. Sure enough, those in the English-language classes had fared worse. Or had they?
In its analysis of the test scores, the school district absolutely excluded 56 percent of the students in the Spanish-language-based program and 37 percent of those in the English program. Why? Because the district decided to omit students who are not fluent in English. Thus, after six years in the district’s primary bilingual program, more than half of its students aren’t fluent enough to take an achievement test in English. By that parameter, the students in English-language classes did better, but their performance was hardly comforting.
Even if you accept the district’s positive spin on the selected test scores themselves, a glaring reality emerges, noted L.A. teachers union president Day Higuchi. "We’re talking about kids in bilingual education doing a little better than kids in English-only programs. Wait a minute. We’re talking about picky points of difference. All the kids are at least 20 percentage points below national norms. The truth is that they’re all doing miserably except the kids who are tracked to go to college. And that gap is getting bigger."
ll told, it’s hard to imagine Proposition 227 losing when polling shows the measure solidly favored by both Anglos and Latinos. Even L.A. teachers, who, by logic, would support the system in which they work, are deeply divided. In a November referendum, teachers opposed Proposition 227 by only a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.
There are some alternatives. The Legislature finally passed a bill allowing school districts flexibility to design local bilingual programs. The bill also established some performance standards. That could have helped, except that Governor Pete Wilson vetoed the bill, then also announced his endorsement of Proposition 227.
Despite that, a movement to set achievement standards continues to slowly gain steam, though it’s way too soon to measure its impact. Locally, L.A. Unified softened the success penalty for English fluency by providing, for the first time, a financial reward to schools that create fluent English speakers. And some of the bilingual-ed programs at L.A. Unified show promise.
Proposition 227, on the other hand, would re-create the same kind of harmful rigidity that has defined the state program. And no research offers support for the idea that in one year, children can learn all the English they need to succeed in school.
The truth is that the problem was never bilingual education alone, but an entire education system that hasn’t delivered. The obvious remedies include well-managed, accountable programs run by talented, inspired teachers — whether the emphasis be on English immersion, native language or, for that matter, Transylvanian falconry. Nevertheless, on June 2, voters are likely to make bilingual education the scapegoat of the moment, and enlist the state in a new education nightmare.
Researchers Jade Chang and Greg Brown contributed to this story.