Ron Unz, the man behind Proposition 227 and the elimination of bilingual education in California, e-mails me to say that “dozens of news stories have appeared on the results of the initiative, virtually all of them very favorable” and to urge that editorialists and columnists who urged its defeat two years ago admit its success.
Time to eat crow served up by Mr. Unz? Well, at least this much is true: The worse fears of bilingual education advocates-me, for one-have not come to pass since California voters approved Proposition 227. At least in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Unified School District earlier this month disclosed that 32,402 out of 313,442 students classified as “English Language Learners” are now considered “Fluent English Proficient.” They were reclassified after satisfactory performances in written and oral tests.
That’s 10.3 percent making the transition. The previous year the figure was 9.9 percent and the year before that-the last year of bilingual education before Proposition 227 did away with it in the state-the figure was 8 percent.
Good news for anyone on either side of the bilingual education debate.
Does that mean, as Unz claims, that the end of bilingual education has been a good thing?
Not necessarily. It only means Proposition 227 has not had the disastrous effect predicted (yes, by me among others). Look at it this way. Ten years ago, only 4.2 percent of Los Angeles students were redesignated from English learners to English fluent. For the next eight years, even with bilingual education, that number grew until it doubled. Then Proposition 227 came along. The increase simply continued thereafter.
In other words, the number of students the school system decided had become fluent in English grew when California had bilingual education, and also when California did not have bilingual education. Besides, factors other than the end of bilingual education may account for the most recent increase.
For instance, there is now better training for teachers who specialize in teaching English learners, and the L.A. school district’s goal to end social promotion (the practice of advancing students to their age-appropriate grade even if they fail courses) has meant an increased emphasis on basic skills for all students whether English learners or native speakers.
Then there is the question of age and language acquisition: 78 percent of the more than 30,000 students reclassified were enrolled in grades K-8. It’s a reminder that younger kids soak up a new language easily–a surprise for no one except some bilingual education advocates who wrongly argue that without bilingual education young kids will learn mere “playground English”
and not academic English. The testing suggests young kids are learning the kind of English they need for school.
But it takes much longer for older kids to learn. One physiological study suggests that at puberty the brain’s neurons begin to fire in a way that makes the acquisition of a new language more difficult. Which may explain why only 702 Los Angeles high school seniors were reclassified as fluent in English.
Teenagers need bilingual education so that while they struggle to master English they can take mathematics, history and other subjects in their own native language, and not fall behind. The concept is so obviously rational that even Ron Unz himself conceded it to me in an e-mail around the time of the Proposition 227 vote.
Lately, Unz has not been shy in reminding everyone that he was correct two years ago when he predicted the end of bilingual education would not cause catastrophic damage. But he has been awfully hesitant to remind everyone he was also right when he agreed that high school students would continue to need bilingual education.
Roger Hern?ndez is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in-
Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.