A year and a half after California voters approved a ban on bilingual education in public schools, test scores are up and students are speaking English as never before.
So why aren’t the teachers at San Jose’s Miller Elementary School happy?
“The transition has been rough,” said kindergarten teacher Maria McCray. “Last year, I had a sea of blank stares in my class. These bewildered kids don’t understand what I’m saying.”
Proposition 227 has created a paradox in California schools: Early test scores — including a statewide analysis by the Mercury News — suggest that students who speak little or no English are learning more in English-only classes. While some teachers are heartened by that, many others fear that so-called “English learners” are being set up for future failure as they struggle to grasp the meaning of words or complex concepts. A Mercury News analysis of test scores for limited-English speakers showed that schools that switched to English-only instruction last year had somewhat bigger achievement gains in the early grades than schools that used waivers to keep bilingual instruction. The analysis provides the first comprehensive statistical glimpse at student performance under the new law. The Mercury News examined enrollment and test data for limited-English-proficient students for the 1998-99 school year – – the first year under Proposition 227 — and the preceding year.
Other findings include:
Proposition 227 did not eliminate bilingual education. Twelve percent of students classified as “English learners” were enrolled in bilingual classes, which are permitted if enough parents at a school request them.
In past years, about a third of English-learners were taught bilingually.
About half were enrolled in Proposition 227’s “structured English immersion” classrooms, which are conducted mostly in English but designed to help those with language difficulties. And 29 percent were considered fluent enough to be in “mainstream” classrooms where they got no special assistance. In the early grades — two, three and four — English immersion schools tended to post higher reading and math scores.
The achievement gap narrowed as students get older, and by grade five, predominantly bilingual schools did better on average.
California does not release individual student scores, so the analysis could not track students as they moved from one type of instruction to another. Moreover, the study covers just one year of instruction under Proposition 227.
And neither type of instruction — bilingual or English-only — fared particularly well overall. Students with limited-English skills still tend to score among the bottom fourth of all students – – regardless of whether they are taught in English or another language.
“Even if you are an advocate (of English instruction), the news is not that good,” said Stanford University education professor Kenji Hakuta.
Still, the data supports what many teachers around the state have reported: that students are rapidly acquiring at least a basic understanding of English. Ron Unz, the Palo Alto businessman who drafted Proposition 227, said the study bears out his claims that immersion in English-language classrooms would help non-English speaking students.
“The opponents of Prop. 227 said all along that test scores (of limited-English-speaking students) would plummet,” Unz said. “Instead, the statewide scores of immigrants rose (significantly) after seven months of 227.”
Education experts, though, strongly cautioned against reading too much into the first year of test scores.
Even though Proposition 227 went into effect in the summer of 1998, many teachers spent the first year adjusting to the new law. Some continued teaching bilingually, in defiance of the law; others suffered from a shortage of English-language materials.
Moreover, test scores were up across the board in California last year — especially in the primary grades — the possible result of a statewide class-size-reduction movement and students and teachers becoming more comfortable with the state’s 2-year-old achievement test.
Douglas Mitchell, a professor at the University of California- Riverside who has studied bilingual education, said English- learner scores were helped by most teachers now using the same language in their classrooms as the state’s student achievement test — English.
That wasn’t always the case. Before Proposition 227, many limited-English students were taught in a language such as Spanish, but tested in English.
“They are concentrating on preparing kids for an English- language exam,” Mitchell said. “But it doesn’t say much about academics.”
Some see harm
Indeed, many local teachers who work with students who speak little or no English said they are seeing disconcerting signs that kids are being harmed by the switch to English instruction.
Those teachers concede that most students are speaking English and understanding what is being said in the English-only classrooms. Many are even learning how to decode simple words — breaking them down into their separate letter sounds. But many of those same students are lagging academically because they cannot grasp what the words mean, or understand the concepts the teachers are trying to convey.
At San Jose’s Miller Elementary, reading and math scores for English-learners generally improved last year. Second-grade reading scores, for example, jumped from the 10th percentile to the 24th.
But teacher Brian Schmaedick said the numbers are deceptive. “The scores go up (on the English-language test) because I’m talking in English,” said Schmaedick, a teacher at San Jose’s Miller Elementary. “They can sound out the word fan, f-a-n. But they don’t understand what a fan is. My kids last year, their scores were higher, but they certainly didn’t learn more.”
Miller Elementary’s acting principal, Gerry Lopez, said parents are encouraged by their children speaking so much English at school. But he said problems will crop up in the coming years, as students move into upper grades where the material is more challenging.
Indeed, English immersion test scores steadily declined as students got older, the Mercury News found. That’s evidence, Lopez said, of the pitfalls of English-only classes.
“We know we’re setting kids up for failure in fourth grade,” he said. “The material takes a big leap from the black-and-white and true-and-false questions of second grade to the more challenging stuff in third and fourth grade.”
While English immersion schools tended to post the bigger gains in the Mercury News analysis, many bilingual schools also improved last year.
Washington Elementary in San Jose Unified is one of the shrinking number of bilingual strongholds, thanks in part to a federal court order that mandates bilingual education for Latino students in the district.
Last year, the school’s reading scores jumped an average of 4.5 percentile points in grades two through five, slightly higher than the three percentile point statewide gain for all limited-English- proficient students.
Washington teachers said they are determined to prove that bilingual education works. The school is encouraging students to become proficient in English at an earlier age. And it has adopted a new literacy program that calls for intensive language arts instruction every morning.
“We all believe in it,” said second-grade teacher Corina Lozano. “The way I see it, the goal of bilingual ed is to teach them English. The theory is there; now we just have to prove it.”
The switch to English has pushed longtime bilingual supporters into several camps, including those who resent Proposition 227, and those who are unhappy, but understand why voters rejected bilingual education.
Teacher Teresa Renteria, of San Jose’s Cassell Elementary, has a foot in two camps. A longstanding supporter of bilingual education, she is trying to reconcile her beliefs with the realities of the classroom.
On one day, she spoke eloquently about the need for students to be taught in their own language, and she worried about the effect Proposition 227 is having on her students.
On another, she revealed her ambivalence about the requirement. True, some of her limited-English students are struggling under the new law.
But there are moments — like the day recently when a Mexican girl named Socorro cheerily zipped through a reading exercise in English — when Renteria warms to the idea of English-only instruction.
“I support bilingual education,” said the teacher during a brief classroom break.
“But if you don’t have a good bilingual program, you might as well start them with English from the beginning. And I haven’t seen many good bilingual programs.”
Making the transition
Second-grade Miller teacher Michelle Elliott has never wavered on the question of bilingual education. Many of her students come from homes where Spanish is the first language. Nonetheless, she cannot imagine working with students in any language other than English.
“In the classroom, I want them to read,” Elliott said. “I worry about kids who don’t have English at home. For those kids, I worry that bilingual education could have shut the doors.”
Other Miller teachers said privately that they also support the switch to English classes. But after years of holding the minority viewpoint on campus, most said they were reluctant to speak publicly.
Shayna Hicks, who this year is teaching a combination third- and fourth-grade class, would say only that she finds it much harder to work with students who have been educated in a bilingual setting.
“It’s just frustrating because you’re still teaching them how to read and teaching them English,” she said.
At La Primaria Elementary in Los Angeles County, teachers were at first frustrated at having to make the switch from bilingual to English instruction, principal Angelica Sifuentes- Donoso said. But the change, coupled with a new, stronger literacy program, has driven up test scores.
“I think overall, it’s been favorable for us,” Sifuentes-Donoso said. `If you have a strong bilingual program, with strong bilingual teachers, then you’re empowering the student. But we didn’t have an ideal program before, so if I’m going this route, I’d rather they learn English.”
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