Ron Unz, the software entrepreneur who has put bilingual education on California’s political front burner, acknowledges some children may benefit from instruction in their native language.
“I don’t know what they’re doing up there in Sonoma County,” he said from his home in Palo Alto. “Maybe it’s not as bad as Los Angeles. But I don’t think the numbers are any better.”
The numbers to which he refers are the “redesignation rates” for kids labeled “limited English proficient” by the state education bureaucracy. Too few are redesignated each year to “full English proficiency,” Unz said.
“The redesignation rate is less than 7 percent statewide,” he said. “That means we’re failing to teach English to 93 percent of our students.”
The rate is even lower this year in the Roseland School District, where 3.3 percent of English learners this year were redesignated as “full English proficient.”
But Superintendent Les Crawford bristled when asked if that translates to a 96.7-percent “failure rate.”
“I can go out on our playground and have a conversation in English with virtually every student in our school,” he said. “But there’s a big difference between playground English and academic English. We’re asking these kids to think and comprehend in a second language. They need to be able to identify and express abstract thoughts, recognize inferences in a story, understand plot.”
Crawford said “all kinds of factors” determine a student’s ability to learn, including the amount of time he has been in the United States, his parents’ educational levels, his parents’ income levels. A major impediment to redesignation in Roseland, he said, is the district’s “transiency rate” of more than 30 percent. That means almost one-third of the district’s students either move into the district or out of the district in a given year. Most of those are English learners.
“Every study that’s been done says it takes five to seven years to effectively learn a second language,” Crawford said. “We don’t have a lot of these kids long enough.”
Unz’s initiative would place all English learners into English-only classes designed to teach them the language in one year.
To be redesignated as “fluent,” a student typically must pass an oral test, complete a writing assignment, earn “C’s” or better in all academic courses, perform above the 36th percentile nationally on a standardized test of reading, language and math and receive recommendations from his classroom teacher, the school principal, the bilingual program coordinator and his parents.
Laura Vallejo, Roseland’s bilingual coordinator, said she has worked in districts where redesignation was a higher priority than it is in Roseland.
“Some schools want to push kids out in the early grades because there is no bilingual support in upper grades,” Vallejo said. “I’ve seen a lot of kids struggle and fail because of that. Here, we recognize it takes time.”
Too much time, Unz said. And he blames that, in part, on a “bilingual industry” that has a financial interest in keeping kids in special language programs.
A 1993 report by the state’s Little Hoover Commission said it’s hard to pin down the true amount of funding schools receive for English learners, but put an estimate of about $1,000 extra per student per year. In Roseland, over the past 10 years, that figure has ranged from $287 to $1,113 per student per year, depending on the availability of various grants and federal funds. This year, the district is receiving about $553 per English learner, according to figures provided by the district.
Harder still, the commission said, is determining how that money is spent. Many schools mix it in the general educational pot.
While the commission advocated allowing districts to make their own decisions on how money is used, it reported that the “current (funding) system operates as a disincentive to properly categorizing and serving the needs of those who do not speak English fluently.” It recommended that the governor and Legislature enact laws to create “an incentive to help students attain English proficiency rapidly.”
The Unz initiative by itself would not affect the funding that schools receive for educating English learners.
So how would the initiative impact Roseland — or any other district?
Specifically, few are willing to predict. But generally: “It will have a real decidedly negative impact on our district,” Crawford said.
“It diminishes our ability as administrators and parents and a community to make decisions about our schools,” he said. “It would be a law superficially applied from the outside by people who have never been here to undermine our work, undermine our success.”
Crawford said he won’t argue there is room for improvement in the way California educates English learners, just as schools can do a better job with math and science and reading.
“The people of California need to ratchet up the accountability of schools as far as student outcomes — to require us to do better, not to tell us how to do better,” he said. “The bottom line isn’t what tools we use to do the job, it’s whether the job is done well.”