'Fuzzy' statistics figure into war over bilingual education

SACRAMENTO — The alarming figure has been out there for years, repeated over and over again until it has taken on the weight of unquestioned fact.

Latino high school students have a staggeringly high dropout rate, 40 percent, and it seems reasonable to conclude that one of the causes is bilingual education.

A national weekly news magazine, U.S. News & World Report,?
said last month: “And while bilingual education alone can’t be blamed,
Latino children have the lowest test scores of any ethnic group in California and — at 40 percent — the highest dropout rate.”

An article in the Los Angeles Times last August by Alice Callaghan,
an Episcopal priest, mentioned “the many problems plaguing California schools, where the Latino dropout rate is 40 percent and Latino students have consistently low achievement test scores.”

But there is a problem here — the 40 percent figure is wrong.

It’s an overstatement that may nearly double the actual statewide dropout rate among Latinos, while ignoring an even higher dropout rate among blacks,
who do not receive bilingual education.

The dropout rate is an example of how the debate over bilingual education often rests on fuzzy statistics and a lack of hard facts. Research about bilingual education is spotty, often conducted by either supporters or opponents,
and generally inconclusive.

Some think the 40 percent Latino dropout rate originally came out of the Los Angeles Unified School District and somehow, over time, evolved into a statewide figure as the number was repeated.

The latest figures from the state Department of Education, which gathers statewide school statistics, show a combined dropout rate of 3.9 percent for all ethnic groups during the 1995-96 school year.

The rate for blacks was 6.6 percent; Latinos, 5.6 percent; American Indian and Pacific Islanders, 4.7 percent; whites, 2.4 percent; Filipinos, 2.3 percent; and Asians, 2 percent.

By comparison, the overall dropout rate in San Diego County was 3 percent in 1995-96, according to the county Office of Education. The rate for blacks was 3.6 percent; Latinos, 4.7 percent; American Indian, 4.6 percent; Pacific Islanders, 2.1 percent; whites, 2.1 percent; Filipinos, 1.6 percent; and Asians, 1.6 percent.)

When projected over the four years that a student is expected to spend in high school, a complicated formula used by the department comes up with a combined dropout rate of 15.2 percent and a Latino dropout rate of 21.4 percent.

On the other hand, the Los Angeles Unified School District had a very high dropout rate of 9 percent, which would project to around 36 percent over a four-year period.

Los Angeles, with its large Latino population, is at the center of the debate over bilingual education. Republican businessman Ron Unz says he launched his initiative to end most bilingual education after reading reports of a boycott by Latino parents last year.

Latino parents withdrew their children from the Ninth Street School in Los Angeles for about two weeks, until the school agreed to let them take classes in English rather than Spanish. Callaghan helped organize the protest.

Critics say bilingual education can contribute to dropout rates by leaving students uncomfortable with English, and thus ill-prepared to do advanced work in high school courses taught in English.

But supporters of bilingual education say dropout rates are more likely to be influenced by factors such as the income and education level of the family, the amount of reading done in the home, and how long the family has been in the country.

In another dispute over statistics, Unz and others say bilingual education is a failure because only 5 percent of the students classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) by the state transfer to mainstream English instruction each year.

But supporters of bilingual education say the transition rate is not a good measure of how the program works because only 30 percent of the 1.4 million LEP students are in full-blown bilingual education programs.

The state Department of Education says most of the rest of the LEP students are in some combination of native language and English instruction — except for 16 percent who receive no special language services at all.

For years, there has been a debate over the academic theory and research supporting bilingual education, sometimes based on studies done in Canada and Europe. Supporters of bilingual education often cite the influential work of Stephen Krashen at the University of Southern California.

The co-chair of the campaign against the Unz initiative, Laurie Olsen,
said there is no research supporting the one-year “sheltered English immersion” program that would be imposed by the initiative.

But backers of the initiative point to the work of Christine Rossell of Boston University and others. Rossell says research suggests that a structured immersion program of one year or less is usually best for children with limited English.

The prestigious National Research Council, whose work is carefully screened by experts before publication, issued a massive study of education research this year, “Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda.”

The lead author, Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University, said little research has been done on the sheltered immersion program that would be imposed by the initiative, making comparisons with bilingual education difficult.

“What the National Research Council would at least tell you is there are cases where bilingual education is a valid approach,” said Hakuta.
“It’s certainly not a failure in all cases.”

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