It sounds so plausible, the counter-argument that bilingual-education defenders lobbed last week against Sen. Charles Starr’s bill (Senate Bill 919) to end bilingual ed in Oregon.

You know those skyrocketing California test scores that the Hillsboro Republican and other bilingual foes hail to promote English immersion for limited-English students? Don’t think Proposition 227’s English-immersion requirement has anything to do with them. No, California’s effort to trim class sizes and early focus on reading are really behind limited-English kids’ recent achievement gains there.

Yes, it sounds so plausible way up here in Oregon, but facts on the ground in California blow apart the counter-argument. Indeed, California’s experience over two years makes plain that Starr is right: Placing non-English-speaking students in English-as a-second-language and English immersion classes is far superior to teaching them subjects in their native language while they learn English.

>From 1998 to 2000, test scores of limited-English students in second through sixth grade — the grades most affected by the change — went up by 43 percent in math, 35 percent in reading, 32 percent in language and 44 percent in spelling. English-limited kids’ increase across all subjects averaged 39 percent. The figure for all students? Only 21 percent.

Even if you’re unwilling to attribute the limited-English kids’ huge gains to bilingual ed’s end, you must at least admit Proposition 227 didn’t produce the educational catastrophe its opponents promised during the campaign.

And immersion’s advantage over bilingual instruction are undeniable in district-to-district comparisons. “Those districts that tried to keep their bilingual programs and worked to avoid the initiative showed little or no increase in their scores during the period,” Prop 227 author Ron Unz told me Friday. “Those that implemented the measure doubled their scores.”

Oceanside United School District, where the law was strictly implemented,
saw overall test scores for limited English students shoot up by 92 percent overall — with a 100 percent gain in math. (All Oceanside students had an 33 percent boost.) At neighboring Vista school district, a bilingual stronghold with similar demographics, overall scores for limited English students went up by only 24 percent. San Jose was the only district to receive an exemption from Proposition 227. Its English-limited student test scores rose by only 25 percent.

Funny, all districts were affected by other factors English-immersion foes cite –in class-size cuts, early reading emphasis — but only limited English students from districts that implemented Prop 227 posted huge gains.

Funny, but not so odd if you consider what that the first study of California’s class-size reduction effort found in June 1999. “California’s multibillion-dollar effort to reduce the size of primary-grade classes has produced only small achievement gains for third-graders,” the Los Angeles Times reported, noting researchers weren’t willing to say the effort was the sole reason for the gains.

Of course, bilingual ed’s fans try another line of attack in the face of the inconvenient California facts. They cry racism. (Surprise!) But that’s not likely intimidate proponents of the Starr bill like Jose Campos, a West Linn parent and management consultant who came here from Nicaragua — with no English — at age 19.

“It’s very emotionally charged and politically sensitive, but I think we have to get beyond that and look at the practicality of it. The sooner you speak English, the sooner you’re a fully functional citizen who can participate in society,” says Campos, who took an English-as-a-second language program and after six months started college. “I think total immersion is one of the best things we can do for our kids. (Crying racism)
is a defense mechanism, and it’s an easy way to intimidate politicians. But we need to focus on what’s best for our kids.”

California sure does, and Oregon should — by the Legislature passing Starr’s bill or, if that fails, by voters passing a Prop 227 of their own.

David Reinhard is an associate editor



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