The controversial effort to end bilingual education in Arizona got a boost from new California test scores that show kids forced to learn English are improving, not failing as many predicted.
In 1998, California became the first state to abolish bilingual education, evolving into a national laboratory for others – including Arizona – considering all-English classrooms.
“We will have the same success stories,” said Maria Escalante Mendoza, co-chairwoman of the English for the Children of Arizona Initiative, a measure on the Nov. 7 ballot that would push the state’s 45,000 bilingual students into English-only classrooms by early next year.
But bilingual education supporters say the California results are misleading, since other changes beyond English immersion – including shrinking class sizes and focusing on phonics – were made in past two years.
They say it takes about three years of instruction in both Spanish and English before kids are ready for all-English classes.
That’s too long for Mendoza.
“The pro-bilingual education establishment has always said there are no statistics that English immersion works,” Mendoza said. “They can no longer say that. There is no doom and gloom for these children, as they predicted.”
Bilingual education supporters, however, aren’t convinced. California’s limited-English second-graders went up 9 percentage points in reading and 14 points in math on the Stanford 9 Achievement Tests. But other groups of students improved at about the same rate.
“I’m happy for California, but you just can’t say that’s the cure,” said Jesus Escarcega, president of the Arizona Association for Bilingual Education.
Added Josue Gonzalez, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Bilingual Education and Research: “There isn’t anything new. The scores are still low.”
Second-graders learning English in California scored in the 28th percentile nationally in reading and 41st percentile in math.
Students who learn in English-only classrooms may pick up the language faster, said Scottsdale teacher Beverly Basalla, but they don’t do as well learning math in a new language. Basalla, a bilingual teacher for more than 20 years in California and Arizona, now teaches at the Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center, one of the first schools in the Scottsdale district to launch a bilingual program.
Today, 75 of the school’s 500 children enroll in bilingual classrooms, including dual language programs where English speakers learn Spanish and Spanish speakers learn English.
Ivette Perez, 10, has been learning English for four years. If she gets stuck on a word, she can get the meaning in Spanish.
“I would get confused,” she said, if she were allowed to speak only English.
There was a time when Ken Noonan was just as wedded to the bilingual approach. The superintendent of the 22,000-student Oceanside Unified School District, north of San Diego, worried that limited-English students would fail if forced to speak English only, even stop coming to school.
But when California had to scrap bilingual education, Noonan, one of the founders of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, soon saw the benefits of English immersion.
“Now I see kids learning to read English in second and third grades when it used to be fourth and fifth grades,” said Noonan, who is of Mexican and Irish descent.
“Don’t be afraid of this,” he advised Arizona parents. “Here is living proof that something else might work well.”
Bilingual education teachers shouldn’t worry either, he said, especially about their jobs. In Noonan’s classrooms, they have become the immersion teachers, still helping the same students.
Before California’s higher test scores, Jorge Amselle, vice president for education at the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington D.C., theorized Arizona’s initiative would pass by a comfortable 57 or 58 percent of the vote.
Now he envisions it sailing through with 60 percent or higher.
“You can disagree over the policy,” Amselle said, “but you should be glad students are doing better.”