Immersion: no flood of fluency

Three years after Prop. 227 ended most bilingual classes, there hasn't been a significant jump in students rated fluent.

The rate of students learning English has not improved appreciably in the three years since the passage of Proposition 227, the English-immersion initiative that was supposed to spur faster fluency.

Orange County’s redesignation rate – the number of English learners who have become fluent in English – is 7 percent this school year, a slight tick upward from last year’s 6.7 percent, according to school-district reports analyzed by The Orange County Register. The rate was 6.2 percent the year before Prop. 227 passed with 61 percent of the vote.

When Prop. 227 was approved in 1998, proponents said an English-only program would teach students the language in one school year, despite concerns from some educators that fluency took five to seven years. Prop. 227 ended bilingual education for English learners except for students whose parents signed waivers to keep them in such classes.

In Orange County, home to nearly 150,000 English learners, progress has been slow, and what is considered fluent varies. Each district sets its own criteria; standards vary enough that a child could be declared fluent in one district but not another. State officials hope a statewide test unveiled last month will change that. THERE’S DISAGREEMENT ON WHAT RESULTS MEAN

Statewide redesignation figures will be available in the fall.

“If Prop. 227 was a magic pill, it hasn’t worked,” said Maria Quezada, executive director of the California Association of Bilingual Education. “All-English programs were a failure before we had bilingual education, and they’re a failure now.”

But Prop. 227 co-author Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who ran unsuccessfully for governor, says the redesignation rate is “complete nonsense.” The rate, he said, doesn’t measure improvement. Instead, it accounts for the small number of students who pass fluency tests.

“Not that many students change,” Unz said.

Unz says standardized tests like the Stanford 9 are the only reliable measure of an English learner’s achievement. Since 1998, those scores have risen for all students, including English learners, although in subjects like reading they still score in the nation’s bottom third.

More districts will come under review

The near-stagnant fluency rate emerges a month after a Superior Court judge in Sacramento ordered the state Department of Education to do a better job of monitoring students learning English, most of whom are Hispanic.

The department has been under court order to monitor schools since 1985, but because of budget cuts and management decisions, it sharply curtailed its efforts in 1998, the same year Prop. 227 passed, critics point out.

In 1998-99, officials failed to conduct a significant amount of reviews and lacked trained staff to oversee English-learner issues, the ruling said.

“They should have been doing it all along,” said Deborah Escobedo, lawyer for the Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc., a San Francisco-based nonprofit that filed the lawsuit.

The districts under review have risen from 18 in 1999 to more than 50 this year, including two in Orange County, Newport-Mesa Unified and Santa Ana Unified.

Four districts – Orange, Savanna, Magnolia and Westminster – have seen increases in fluency rates since getting permission from the state to stop bilingual education, before the halt was mandated by Prop. 227. For example, Westminster’s rates are at 12 percent now, compared with 5 percent in 1995-96 – the year before it was the first district to request a waiver in 1996.

Some districts, like Santa Ana, offer bilingual education for parents who request it. Others have no such classes.

In the Cypress School District — which boasts the county’s highest rate, 20.3 percent — Superintendent Bill Eller said schools have spent $800,000 to pay for 10 “learning specialists” to work with English learners, some of whom receive individual attention.

Those specialists “make sure the students can be assimilated back into the regular classes as soon as possible,” Eller said.

At Hazard Elementary in the Garden Grove Unified School District, Principal Jan Schmidt said teaching English learners is a “daunting task.”

“Their parents come into school with limited English, and they offer less support at home,” said Schmidt, whose school redesignated only 4 percent of 713 students. “Those parents are struggling to make it in life, and their students don’t do as well.”

Schmidt said her school offers English-language classes to parents two nights a week.

“We don’t feel unsuccessful,” Schmidt said. “We’re making steps. Maybe they’re baby steps, but they’re steps.”

Register staff writer Sarah Tully Tapia contributed to this report.

Contact Sharon at (714) 796-2428 or [email protected]

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