Thanks largely to the efforts of one man, Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, California now limits Spanish-language instruction to one year in most cases. Prior to passage of Proposition 227, Latino public school children might remain in bilingual education classes for seven or eight years, often leaving school with a limited knowledge of English and little prospects for a decent job.
The waste of talent and brains angered Unz, who sponsored and largely financed the referendum. It passed by a wide margin in June 1998, much to the chagrin of Latino politicians and teachers unions. They predicted Spanish-speaking children would refuse to go to school and those who did would fail to learn anything.
The predictions were dead wrong. The bilingual ban has produced striking improvements in both reading and math, particularly among children in the earlier grades. Standardized test scores released earlier this month testify that second-graders increased their reading ability by 9 percentage points over the last two years. In math, the increase in the average score for the same students was up 14 points. Similar improvement was seen throughout the state.
Even some ardent supporters of bilingual education have been converted. Ken Noonan, who founded the California Association of Bilingual Educators, says he was convinced immersion in English would hurt Latino children. “The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me. The kids began to learn . . .
formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would,” he told the New York Times .
In Noonan’s school district, the average reading score of students initially classified as having limited English rose 19 percentage points over the last two years.
The test findings discredit wrong-headed theories that maintain Spanish-speaking students learn English better by being taught first in Spanish. Schools expected previous generations of immigrant children to speak and write English from the start. And they did so. They were immersed in English from the minute they entered a classroom. The latest standardized test results in California confirm that what worked for two centuries still works today.
Some educators are still not convinced. They say most of the credit goes not to the ban on bilingual but to smaller classes and a new emphasis on phonics. California enrolls one of every 10 public school children in the country, so there’s a lot riding on the issue. At stake are thousands of teaching positions plus the $5,000 annual bonuses paid bilingual instructors. In addition, Arizona and Colorado are considering legislation similar to Proposition 227.
Disillusion with bilingual education has been widespread for years,
particularly among immigrant parents, 75 percent of whom want their children taught in English. An indication of growing professional panic on the subject is seen in Education Secretary Richard Riley’s “dual immersion”
program proposed in March. He wants to create a thousand new programs around the country that will teach Spanish to English-speakers as well as teaching English to Spanish-speakers.
A bit of healthy skepticism suggests that Riley’s program is the federal government’s effort to salvage the jobs of out-of-work bilingual educators.
The sorriest aspect of it all is that untold thousands of immigrant children have been deprived of the kind of education on which they could build a promising future. Other states should take a hard look at the contrast between California before and after Proposition 227.
OUR POSITION IS:
Immersion in English is the best strategy for teaching Spanish-speaking students.