A record number of Los Angeles Unified students learning English have achieved fluency in the first full school year since passage of Proposition 227, a ringing endorsement for proponents of the measure that ended bilingual education classes in the state.
More than 32,400 students, or 10.3 percent of the district’s English learners, made the transition to fluency between December 1998 and December 1999, according to district records, compared with 9.9 percent during the previous year and 8 percent in the last year of bilingual education.
Backers of Proposition 227, which voters overwhelmingly passed in 1998, said the numbers vindicate their view that children can learn English quickly without spending years in Spanish-language classes.
“Either it’s 227, or it’s a remarkable coincidence,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote the ballot measure.
Many educators and Latino activists who opposed Proposition 227 aren’t willing to concede just yet. They point out a number of other factors that could have influenced students’ performance, including smaller class sizes, reading-intervention programs and a greater number of teachers trained to work with English learners.
But some, at least, confess relief that the predicted plunge in student achievement following passage of the ballot initiative never occurred.
“Of course I think it’s positive that scores didn’t crash, but is it really working? It’s too soon to tell,” said Theresa Fay-Bustillos, vice president of legal programs for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which opposed the initiative.
Indeed, the two years following Proposition 227’s passage aren’t much time to assess the measure’s impact. But the initial numbers are encouraging, many educators said.
Scores on the Stanford 9 standardized tests rose last year for students with limited English speaking skills, although the dramatic gains initially reported by many districts were due to an error in grading the exams. Instead, scores for English-language learners in Los Angeles rose by one or two percentage points in most grades — roughly the same level of improvement shown by fluent English speakers.
The number of students who made the transition to fluency increased from 24,851 in the last year before the proposition to 32,402 in the most recent tally, which runs from December 1998 to December 1999. To make the switch, students must prove their language skills on written and oral tests administered by the district.
Some teachers, including Canoga Park instructor Sheryl Rosario, said the immersion classes in which most English learners are now enrolled can teach students how to speak the language, and do it well.
“I think it is working,” she said, as her kindergarten and first-grade pupils, who don’t speak fluent English, wrote sentences on sheets of lined paper. “If you keep giving them Spanish, they’re just going to give it back to you.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. But all agree Proposition 227 greatly changed the way Los Angeles Unified teaches English-language learners, who comprised nearly 45 percent of the district’s student population in 1998-99, the last year for which data was available.
Last year, 84,626 elementary school pupils attended English-immersion classes within the district. An additional 109,241 students attended another type of class that allows teachers to give some help in a second language, although most of the instruction must be in English. And 21,941 students were placed in bilingual classes at their parents’ request, a right they retained after the proposition was passed.
District officials, while not discounting the proposition’s impact, said it can’t be the sole factor behind the rising number of English-fluent students.
Some year-round schools, for example, didn’t begin implementing the proposition until January 1999. The changes at those schools, therefore, could contribute to the rise in the fluency transitions recorded by last December but not to the more substantial gains made the year before.
At the same time, they said, other forces have been at work. The district has increased its training programs for teachers who work with English-learners. It has launched extensive reading intervention programs during the past year as part of its effort to end social promotion, the practice of advancing underachieving students to the next grade.
And it has made the rate of students making the transition to fluency a key figure used in assessing each school’s overall performance. Schools don’t face penalties if they post lackluster rates, but teachers and district officials said the increased emphasis has an impact.
“Once you put that into your accountability system, of course schools are going to pay more attention to it,” said Rita Caldera, an administrator in the district’s language acquisition branch.
Teachers like Rosario make the immersion classes work through a combination of patience and creativity.
Her students don’t always breeze through lessons. When they come back from breaks spent in Spanish-speaking households, Rosario will endure a few mute stares while students try to remember the language she works so hard to teach them. Sometimes she has to mime instructions when a student can’t catch the words.
“I can tell a kid, Please push your chair in, and they’ll just stare at me. So I’ll have to model it. I’ll say, This is your chair. Push it in,” she said, gently moving a child-size chair under a desk as she spoke.
Fay-Bustillos said that while she’s encouraged that students seem to be adapting to English-immersion classes, she wonders whether they will pick up enough of the concepts being taught to excel at later grades.
“What you’re going to witness in a classroom is verbal fluency,” she said. “But that’s not the same as literacy.”
Still, she is grateful that the wrenching debate over Proposition 227 and its aftermath have forced Californians to pay attention to the education students with limited English skills receive.
“That’s a welcome focus,” she said. “It wasn’t there before.”