When Proposition 227 passed in June, school district administrators scrambled to dismantle their bilingual education programs and replace them with sheltered English immersion.
Now, five months later, the most daunting challenge is how to evaluate whether these new programs work.
The initiative was designed to ensure that limited-English public school pupils become fluent in English as soon as possible. More than 1.4 million pupils in California are not fluent, and architects of the measure blame “bilingual education,” the approach used in California schools for several decades.
Bilingual education teaches pupils academic subjects such as science, math and history in their native tongue while they slowly learn English. The idea was to make sure pupils don’t fall behind while learning a new language.
However, many pupils stayed in those programs for years without learning English. Their cases fueled arguments for scrapping bilingual education and immersing pupils in English instead.
With the passing of Proposition 227, the state education code now requires limited-English pupils to be placed for one year in sheltered English immersion classes, in which pupils are taught mostly in English with some help in their native tongue. After that year, pupils who demonstrate a working knowledge of English go into mainstream English classes. Those who can’t perform English are to be placed in alternative programs.
The problem for educators is that there are no standard guidelines for gauging a working knowledge of English.
Proposition 227 does not set up guidelines, says Long Beach schools administrator Wendy Claflin, one of two people chosen to head the district’s 227 implementation committee. And the California Department of Education hasn’t helped, she says. The department released emergency regulations on allowing parents to opt their children out of the program, but it didn’t define what constitutes a working knowledge of English.
There are standards for determining when a student is fluent. For example, according to state law, a limited-English pupil who scores in the 36th percentile on the Stanford 9 test can be reclassified as Fluent English Proficient.
But district administrators such as Claflin say having a working knowledge of English is not the same as being fluent — it is more like a step below. Districts could evaluate their programs by how many students are reclassified as fluent. But research has shown that few limited-English students are able to reach such a goal in a year, so administrators fear such a measure would not yield accurate results.
State officials say it’s up to each district to define what “working knowledge” means.
“We’ve given districts lots of latitude,” says Fred Tempes, director of the School and District Accountability Division of the California Department of Education.
Ron Unz, the Palo Alto businessman who drafted 227, echoes Tempes, saying it is not up to him to set up guidelines.
“That is for the districts to decide,” Unz says.
Tempes says it might be easier if the state came up with a definition, but that would threaten each district’s local control. “It’s one of the problems we’re wrestling with.”
But that doesn’t mean the state won’t do it, he adds.
The State Board of Education is considering whether to impose state standards for English language development programs, and those standards could yield the definition districts are looking for. State educators recently chose officials at the San Diego County Office of Education to draft some standards.
Meanwhile, districts do have an idea of the ways they will measure their programs once all definitions and standards have been hashed out.
“We will use multiple measures,” says Linda Kennedy, director of curriculum and instruction at Downey Unified. Those measures will include the Stanford 9, writing tests and oral tests. Downey has used these same measures in the past, Kennedy says.
“It’s very easy to see movement if you test them each year,” she says.