Immigrant Students in California Make Surprising Gains

-Scores Vindicate those who streamlined Denver's Program

If Rita Montero is feeling vindicated by the news streaming in from the West Coast, you can’t really blame her. As a Denver school board member, Montero led the successful struggle to reform the district’s bilingual program to ensure that Hispanic kids moved to mainstream English classes after three years or less. A federal judge approved the idea, and the program is heading into its second year.

For her trouble, Montero was denounced by activists who believe in bilingual instruction without end and by academic “experts” who insist it is impossible for children to learn a foreign language in three years. When she ran for re-election last year, Montero was targeted by much of the political establishment and soundly defeated (although in a campaign exmphasizing several issues, we should note).

To those who say three years is not long enough for a bilingual program, Montero can now offer a one-word rebuttal: California.

Yes, California. You see, while Denver was wrestling with federal bureaucrats two years ago over the terms of a streamlined bilingual program, California voters were endorsing a ballot initiative that abolished bilingual programs altogether. We repeat: abolished them. They did so in the face of hysterical opposition that predicted an educational meltdown. Thousands of students would sink into despair, it was said, while the gap between immigrants and native-born Americans would grow to a chasm.

Instead, the opposite happened. California’s standardized test were released just a few days ago, and even some of those who once sounded the loudest alarms now admit they were wrong.

“I thought it would hurt kids,” a chastened Ken Noonan told The New York Times. Noonan, who founded the California Association of Bilingual Educators 30 years ago, had denounced the initiative out of fear that Hispanic students would actually stop coming to school. “The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me,” he says. “The kids began to learn – not pick up, but learn – formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would. You read the research and they tell you it takes seven years. Here are kids, within nine months in the first year, and they literally learned to read.”

The test scores bear him out. As the Times noted, “In second grade . . . the average score in reading of a student classified as limited in English increased 9 percentage points over the last two years, to the 28th percentile from the 19th percentile in national rankings, according to the state. In mathematics, the increase in the average score for the same students was 14 points, to the 41st percentile from the 27th.”

Now, we’re not necessarily saying Colorado should abolish bilingual programs – although voters may well get to rule on that proposition in 2002, if the group One Nation Indivisible has its way. We are saying, however, that those who’ve insisted that Denver’s three-year target is unreasonably strict have some explaining to do.

Three years is long enough for virtually anyone to learn English who is making a serious attempt in a well-designed program. In fact, three years is more than long enough.

Yet as recently as this spring, former Denver Superintendent Chip Zullinger applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a grant to let four schools implement a “late-exit” bilingual program that would have extended instruction beyond three years. Fortunately, since then the grant program has been redesigned to conform with Denver’s bilingual goals, and the district appears resolved to stay on course.

If board members have any sense, the next superintendent they hire will be committed not only to a policy of three years and out, but possibly to streamlining the bilingual program even further. Because waiting in the wings, if Colorado educators aren’t careful, is a voter-imposed policy of no bilingual education at all.

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