Two years after California voters evicted bilingual education, the state’s standardized tests are showing striking increases in scores among limited-English speakers. Critics say the gains prove that bilingual education was ineffective. The reality, however, is more complex.

The debate was renewed by a Sunday New York Times article, in which reporter Jacques Steinberg wrote that the increases in test scores among limited English speakers “represent a tentative affirmation of the vision of Ron K. Unz,” the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who led the fight against bilingual education in California. Unz now is the primary financial supporter of an anti-bilingual education initiative in Arizona.

The Wall Street Journal quickly hopped on the bandwagon Wednesday with an editorial arguing that California’s experience provides lessons for every other state.

“The results suggest that, yes, it is sometimes possible for the power of reason – and even the education of children – to triumph over entrenched political interests,” the Journal opined. Those entrenched political interests presumably are bilingual education teachers.

In the Journal’s opinion, bilingual education is just one more example of the liberal propensity to turn well-meaning welfare programs into a bureaucracy that requires social problems to get even larger “because their size determines any program’s funding and employment levels.”

All of this would be well and good – except that California’s Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education, cannot accurately be given credit for the improved test results.

Since the Times article appeared, Stanford Professor Kenji Hakuta has been besieged with a “cascade” of media calls, he reports on his web page. He lists several points he makes to reporters:

* Limited-English students in fact did improve in his analysis of two years of SAT-9 scores, especially in the early grades. But native English speakers show virtually identical patterns of improvement. Thus, the improvement is not from Prop. 227.

* Several changes were made at the same time, blurring the ability to tell which ones were responsible for the gains. In addition to Prop. 227, class sizes were reduced, school accountability was increased and schools took the standardized tests more seriously and prepared students better.

* The SAT-9 test was designed to test reading and math abilities of English speakers. Thus it is a very imprecise measure of whether one method of learning English is better than another.

Hakuta’s critique makes clear that both the Times reporter and The Wall Street Journal editorial writers have jumped the gun in declaring California’s Prop. 227 a success.

Bilingual education does have many problems. The programs too frequently do a poor job of measuring their success or failure, and their goals remain fuzzy.

But so far, there are no lessons about bilingual education in California’s test scores.

There is a lesson in this for educators, however. If educators don’t get their numbers and goals in order, they won’t be able to keep what should be educational decisions from becoming political decisions. That is the real lesson from California’s experience.

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