Sometimes common-sense education reforms can be implemented over the objections of powerful interest groups. Sometimes those reforms will result in better-than-expected improvements for school children. And, on rare occasions, that victory might even get favorable coverage in the national news media.
The best example is bilingual education. Despite being outspent 25-to-1 by bilingual ed supporters, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz pushed forward Proposition 227, which outlawed most public bilingual education programs in California. Test scores have shown dramatic improvements for students immersed in English rather than in their native language since Prop. 227’s passage in 1998. Now even The New York Times is duly impressed.
In a front-page article on Sunday, Times writer Jacques Steinberg wrote:
“Two years after Californians voted to end bilingual education and force a million Spanish-speaking students to immerse themselves in English as if it were a cold bath, those students are improving in reading and other subjects at often striking rates, according to standardized test scores released this week.” The article noted that predictions of catastrophe have not materialized.
Quite the contrary. As Mr. Unz told us, “the average mean percentile test score [for limited English California elementary school students] went up by 39 percent in less than two years. That’s almost unprecedented.”
The numbers are even more impressive when one compares school districts that strictly followed the Prop. 227 guidelines with those that allowed large percentages of students to opt out of the English immersion requirements.
The Times compared Oceanside’s stunning increases with nearby Vista’s scores. Oceanside had the strictest implementation of Prop. 227 in the state and posted increases of 93 percent in reading and 100 percent in math scores. Vista resisted the measure and granted waivers to about half of its limited English students and faced falling scores in most areas in the past year (although Vista posted slight gains over the two-year period). “In nearly every grade, the increases in Oceanside were at least double those in Vista, which is similar in size and economic background to Oceanside,” wrote the Times.
Fortunately, the test scores are so striking that bilingual education’s few remaining defenders have few defenses left, other than to argue that other reforms imposed at roughly the same time are the real reasons for dramatically improved test scores among English learners.
“The one factor people describe, ? class size reduction, probably didn’t have a big impact,” Mr. Unz said. He points to studies indicating that reduced class sizes will only increase test scores by about two or three percentage points.
But Mr. Unz also credits the replacement of whole language reading with phonics. The irony, he told us, is that academics who supported bilingual education almost always supported whole language also, which makes their excuses shaky. There’s no question, he said, that “a huge portion [of the improvement] came from 227.”
Mr. Unz’s broader hope is that the post-Prop. 227 test scores “will destroy the credibility of a lot of these activists who support the full multicultural agenda.” He expects the results to help his efforts to overturn bilingual education in Arizona and other states. The assimilationist dream hasn’t vanished. Next time someone says it has, bring up the post-bilingual education test scores and remember the successful battle Mr. Unz waged.