Scores rise as Calif. schools immerse

Gains follow halt to bilingual ed

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Today we’re learning about the ”short I” sound, Mrs. Schwyzer tells her second-graders in their second week of classes.

Pig. Dip. Slip. Tim hid the stick.

The words go up on the blackboard. Hands go up in the air. Children with names like Marina, Blanca, and Umberto vie to spell the words.

Two years ago, most of Carol Schwyzer’s pupils at Harding Elementary spoke no English. Most came to kindergarten from Spanish-only homes. But unlike past generations, the youngsters were not eased into a second language. They were immersed in it, forced to grab onto English or sink among all the unfamiliar words.

”I’m sorry to see the children lose literacy in Spanish, but I’m happy to see them gain confidence in English,” said Schwyzer, who taught bilingual education before it was voted down by ballot initiative, Proposition 227, in June 1998. ”They need it, and they know it, and they’re proud of themselves.”

As Massachusetts considers a similar law, the experience of California is being watched closely. Many educators there had forecast catastrophe with the dismantling of bilingual education. That hasn’t happened. The 1 million or so public school pupils classified as ”limited English speakers” have shown respectable, sometimes striking, gains on standardized tests.

How much of the improvement is attributable to English immersion is less easily charted. Advocates and opponents alike say that other factors – from state-mandated reductions in class size to an emphasis on language arts – have helped, too. On its own, they agree, immersion might have had a less impressive launch.

As Harding principal Marlyn Nicolas put it, ”Ending bilingual is just one of the tools; I couldn’t say it’s the most important.”

Still, advocates of the immersion method say its role cannot be denied. Pupils in the program have shown stronger gains in both reading and math than have their nonimmersion classmates. For example, on the 2001 Stanford 9, which tests relatively basic skills, second-grade immersion pupils raised their average scores by 3 percentile points, an improvement twice as large as pupils considered fluent in English.

”It’s not proof, but it’s strong circumstantial evidence leading to the level of presumption that immersion makes a difference,” said Ron Unz, who led the movement opposing bilingual education in California, helped Arizona rid itself of the classes, and is working to do the same in Massachusetts. ”Those school districts that were exempt from Prop. 227 showed minimal gains. Those that most strictly complied showed gigantic gains.”

Opponents of immersion argue that the gains are statistically insignificant. They also say that immersion pupils will not keep pace with fluent English speakers over the long term. According to them, the test score gains were inevitable, given how low they had been and the extra attention pupils now receive. With a shortage of bilingual teachers, they say, most limited-English speakers were already in ad hoc immersion classes.

No one disputes that children immersed in English, particularly in the primary grades, are now immersed in a stronger program overall. Among the changes cited by both sides of the debate: a return to a phonetics-based reading program, new materials to guide teachers through lesson plans, and an emphasis on preparing pupils for the standardized tests.

”Bilingual education is just a scapegoat for schools failing on other fronts,” said Jill Kemper Mora, an associate professor of teacher education who specializes in English-language development at San Diego State University. ”If knowledge of language were the only issue here, why are black students not achieving?…

”What we have now are all sorts of rewards and punishments for scores to go up,” she added. ”So the scores have naturally gone up for all students.”

In the Santa Barbara School District, which made the controversial decision to end bilingual education on its own a year before California, math and English scores have steadily improved in almost every grade.

Harding has been no exception. About 60 percent of its 530 kindergarten through sixth-graders are considered English-language learners. Just 10 percent or so of its pupils are non-Hispanic whites. Most come from poorer families.

”I wasn’t a big supporter of bilingual education, because I didn’t see the growth kids were supposed to have,” said Nicolas, the principal. ”Now our scores are as high as the Anglo schools in the district.”

Maria Calderon, a mother of three Harding pupils who speaks no English, said she appreciates the efforts to make her children fluent. But she resents her inability to help them with their homework and is concerned that they will not be able to read the simplest signs in Spanish if they ever visit her native Mexico.

”Bilingual is better, because they learn both languages and they learn better,” Calderon said. ”It’s necessary these days to speak Spanish and English. I want my children to know both well.”

Still, Calderon did not apply for a waiver to keep her children in bilingual classes. Each year, fewer parents have applied statewide, according to educators. In the Oceanside School District, for instance, about 150 waivers were requested the first year. This year, none were, said Superintendent Ken Noonan.

Noonan, who campaigned against Proposition 227, is a convert to immersion. His pupils have improved their performance on the Stanford 9 test by double or more. Even the scores of those students redesignated English-proficient – meaning that they had left immersion classes for the mainstream – continued to rise, although at a slower rate.

Test scores ”hadn’t moved out of the basement for many years, then all of a sudden there was a 100 percent gain,” Noonan said. ”We thought it could be a fluke. But we saw [improvement] again and again. … Anyone who tells me that’s not significant is spouting foolishness.”

Still, the numbers are far from good enough, educators say. Even with all the changes, no more than half of California’s pupils are reading at or above the 50th percentile in any grade but second. At Harding, whose pupils have been taught exclusively in English for an additional year, the numbers are better. Seven of 10 grades scored at or above the 50th percentile; eight grades outperformed the state as a whole.

Those improvements do not impress Francisca Sanchez, president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. Instead, she credited the additional emphasis on reading among all students and wondered whether the underlying program was powerful enough to maintain continued gains. She also called the comparisons made by immersion supporters misleading.

”When Ron Unz talks about scores going up, he’s not comparing the same group of students,” Sanchez said. ”They’re looking at how this year’s second-graders did compared with last year. The question is: How are last year’s second-graders doing, now that they’re in third grade?”

Immersion advocates expect similar criticisms to be raised in Massachusetts, where they are aiming for a November 2002 ballot initiative. But they argue that the evidence is incontrovertible, even as practitioners such as Nicolas stress the necessity of preschool and afterschool tutoring programs.

At Harding, where school forms are still available in Spanish, teachers sometimes still slip into the language when pupils are confused. But Kendall Lyons said his sixth-graders don’t need him to translate anymore, giving him more time to concentrate on the day’s lessons. All of the birthday cards taped to Nicolas’s door are in English, almost all of them grammatically correct.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/10/2001.

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