Critiquing TUSD's bilingual ed

A $60,000 study of bilingual education in Tucson Unified School District raises serious questions about the program’s operations.

Nevertheless, advocates should welcome the report, presented to the governing board March 10 by San Antonio’s Intercultural Development Research Association.

They should welcome the report because if the district takes its recommendations to heart, it has a much better chance of ensuring its bilingual education program is of high quality.

The consultants say the TUSD program has a “distinguished history and tradition,” and they note it is “nationally recognized and respected.”

Yet one of their clearest, most unambiguous findings casts doubt on that claim.

That finding: “Incomplete student data makes it virtually impossible to comprehensively gauge the effectiveness of the bilingual education program.”

If nobody knows how well the program is doing, then the questions are obvious: What is this reported national reputation based on? How can anybody know whether the program deserves a national reputation?

Moreover, when the consultants discovered they were not going to be able to gauge the program’s effectiveness, one wonders why they didn’t just close up shop and say they would come back in future years when information is available.

It is the responsibility of the administrators, managers and teachers in the program to gather data that gauges the students’ success. This is fundamental. It’s this failure to collect and provide data that apparently led the consultants to criticize the program’s lack of accountability.

In addition, the consultants found a lack of understanding about and commitment to bilingual education on some of the campuses. They found a misconception about its role. They found more schools showing a decrease in compliance with applicable laws and court rulings than were in compliance. They found ” ‘loose’ implementation characterized by indifference among some stafff, and unfocused and weak instructional efforts.” And rather than clear, shared accountability, they found “a system of blame or ‘pointing the finger.’ “

The lack of reliable data apparently accounts for some of the report’s highly qualified language. Take the finding touted when the report was released – that limited-English students who stay in bilingual education perform as well on tests as English-speaking students.

On that, the report said: “Preliminary analyses also suggest that long participation in the program seemed to have a beneficial effect on students’ academic performance.” Any finding qualified with “preliminary,” “suggest” and “seemed” is neither strongly felt nor persuasive.

If a bilingual education program is successful, students at some point will move out of it into regular classrooms. IDRA found that on average, the district “reclassifies” 299 students a year as no longer having limited English proficiency. That is roughly 3 percent of the students who are developing proficiency in English. The consultants accurately characterized that success rate as “low.”

In short, with some specific, sharp criticisms, consultants strongly supportive of bilingual education have challenged TUSD to make its program truly effective.

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