A year and a half after California voters approved a ban on bilingual
education in public schools, test scores are up and students are
speaking English as never before.
So why aren’t the teachers at San Jose’s Miller Elementary
“The transition has been rough,” said kindergarten teacher Maria
McCray. “Last year, I had a sea of blank stares in my class. These
bewildered kids don’t understand what I’m saying.”
Proposition 227 has created a paradox in California schools:
Early test scores — including a statewide analysis by the
Mercury News — suggest that students who speak little or no
English are learning more in English-only classes. While some
teachers are heartened by that, many others fear that so-called
“English learners” are being set up for future failure as they
struggle to grasp the meaning of words or complex concepts.
A Mercury News analysis of test scores for limited-English
speakers showed that schools that switched to English-only
instruction last year had somewhat bigger achievement gains in
the early grades than schools that used waivers to keep bilingual
instruction. The analysis provides the first comprehensive
statistical glimpse at student performance under the new law.
The Mercury News examined enrollment and test data for
limited-English-proficient students for the 1998-99 school year –
– the first year under Proposition 227 — and the preceding year.
Other findings include:
Proposition 227 did not eliminate bilingual education. Twelve
percent of students classified as “English learners” were
enrolled in bilingual classes, which are permitted if enough
parents at a school request them.
In past years, about a third of English-learners were taught
About half were enrolled in Proposition 227’s “structured
English immersion” classrooms, which are conducted mostly in
English but designed to help those with language difficulties.
And 29 percent were considered fluent enough to be in
“mainstream” classrooms where they got no special assistance.
In the early grades — two, three and four — English immersion
schools tended to post higher reading and math scores.
The achievement gap narrowed as students get older, and by
grade five, predominantly bilingual schools did better on
California does not release individual student scores, so the
analysis could not track students as they moved from one type of
instruction to another. Moreover, the study covers just one year
of instruction under Proposition 227.
And neither type of instruction — bilingual or English-only —
fared particularly well overall. Students with limited-English
skills still tend to score among the bottom fourth of all students –
– regardless of whether they are taught in English or another
“Even if you are an advocate (of English instruction), the news
is not that good,” said Stanford University education professor
Still, the data supports what many teachers
around the state have reported: that students are rapidly
acquiring at least a basic understanding of English. Ron Unz, the
Palo Alto businessman who drafted Proposition 227, said the
study bears out his claims that immersion in English-language
classrooms would help non-English speaking students.
“The opponents of Prop. 227 said all along that test scores (of
limited-English-speaking students) would plummet,” Unz said.
“Instead, the statewide scores of immigrants rose (significantly)
after seven months of 227.”
Education experts, though, strongly cautioned against reading
too much into the first year of test scores.
Even though Proposition 227 went into effect in the summer of
1998, many teachers spent the first year adjusting to the new
law. Some continued teaching bilingually, in defiance of the
law; others suffered from a shortage of English-language
Moreover, test scores were up across the board in California last
year — especially in the primary grades — the possible result of a
statewide class-size-reduction movement and students and
teachers becoming more comfortable with the state’s 2-year-old
Douglas Mitchell, a professor at the University of California-
Riverside who has studied bilingual education, said English-
learner scores were helped by most teachers now using the same
language in their classrooms as the state’s student achievement
test — English.
That wasn’t always the case. Before Proposition 227, many
limited-English students were taught in a language such as
Spanish, but tested in English.
“They are concentrating on preparing kids for an English-
language exam,” Mitchell said. “But it doesn’t say much about
Some see harm
Indeed, many local teachers who work with students who speak
little or no English said they are seeing disconcerting signs that kids
are being harmed by the switch to English instruction.
Those teachers concede that most students are speaking English
and understanding what is being said in the English-only
classrooms. Many are even learning how to decode simple
words — breaking them down into their separate letter sounds.
But many of those same students are lagging academically
because they cannot grasp what the words mean, or understand
the concepts the teachers are trying to convey.
At San Jose’s Miller Elementary, reading and math scores for
English-learners generally improved last year. Second-grade
reading scores, for example, jumped from the 10th percentile to
But teacher Brian Schmaedick said the numbers are deceptive.
“The scores go up (on the English-language test) because I’m
talking in English,” said Schmaedick, a teacher at San Jose’s
Miller Elementary. “They can sound out the word fan, f-a-n.
But they don’t understand what a fan is. My kids last year, their
scores were higher, but they certainly didn’t learn more.”
Miller Elementary’s acting principal, Gerry Lopez, said parents
are encouraged by their children speaking so much English at
school. But he said problems will crop up in the coming years,
as students move into upper grades where the material is more
Indeed, English immersion test scores steadily declined as
students got older, the Mercury News found. That’s evidence,
Lopez said, of the pitfalls of English-only classes.
“We know we’re setting kids up for failure in fourth grade,” he
said. “The material takes a big leap from the black-and-white
and true-and-false questions of second grade to the more
challenging stuff in third and fourth grade.”
While English immersion schools tended to post the bigger gains
in the Mercury News analysis, many bilingual schools also
improved last year.
Washington Elementary in San Jose Unified is one of the shrinking
number of bilingual strongholds, thanks in part to a federal court order
that mandates bilingual education for Latino students in the district.
Last year, the school’s reading scores jumped an average of 4.5
percentile points in grades two through five, slightly higher than
the three percentile point statewide gain for all limited-English-
Washington teachers said they are determined to prove that
bilingual education works. The school is encouraging students to
become proficient in English at an earlier age. And it has
adopted a new literacy program that calls for intensive language
arts instruction every morning.
“We all believe in it,” said second-grade teacher Corina Lozano.
“The way I see it, the goal of bilingual ed is to teach them
English. The theory is there; now we just have to prove it.”
The switch to English has pushed longtime bilingual supporters
into several camps, including those who resent Proposition 227,
and those who are unhappy, but understand why voters rejected
Teacher Teresa Renteria, of San Jose’s Cassell Elementary, has a
foot in two camps. A longstanding supporter of bilingual
education, she is trying to reconcile her beliefs with the realities
of the classroom.
On one day, she spoke eloquently about the need for students to
be taught in their own language, and she worried about the effect
Proposition 227 is having on her students.
On another, she revealed her ambivalence about the
requirement. True, some of her limited-English students are
struggling under the new law.
But there are moments — like the day recently when a Mexican
girl named Socorro cheerily zipped through a reading exercise in
English — when Renteria warms to the idea of English-only
“I support bilingual education,” said the teacher during a brief
“But if you don’t have a good bilingual program, you might as
well start them with English from the beginning. And I haven’t
seen many good bilingual programs.”
Making the transition
Second-grade Miller teacher Michelle Elliott has never wavered
on the question of bilingual education. Many of her students come
from homes where Spanish is the first language. Nonetheless, she
cannot imagine working with students in any language other than English.
“In the classroom, I want them to read,” Elliott said. “I worry
about kids who don’t have English at home. For those kids, I
worry that bilingual education could have shut the doors.”
Other Miller teachers said privately that they also support the switch
to English classes. But after years of holding the minority viewpoint
on campus, most said they were reluctant to speak publicly.
Shayna Hicks, who this year is teaching a combination third-
and fourth-grade class, would say only that she finds it much
harder to work with students who have been educated in a
“It’s just frustrating because you’re still teaching them how to
read and teaching them English,” she said.
At La Primaria Elementary in Los Angeles County, teachers
were at first frustrated at having to make the switch from
bilingual to English instruction, principal Angelica Sifuentes-
Donoso said. But the change, coupled with a new, stronger
literacy program, has driven up test scores.
“I think overall, it’s been favorable for us,” Sifuentes-Donoso
said. `If you have a strong bilingual program, with strong
bilingual teachers, then you’re empowering the student. But we
didn’t have an ideal program before, so if I’m going this route,
I’d rather they learn English.”