Success succeeds

A San Francisco study of bilingual education skews results by leaving out students who lag behind their smarter peers

SAN FRANCISCO school officials are touting a new study that shows that students who complete the district’s bilingual program do as well as or better than students in English-only classes, when both groups are tested in reading and math. That sounds like a great victory for bilingual education, until you examine what’s really going on.

The “duh” -invoking news the study truly conveys is that successful students succeed.

Only 12 percent of bilingual students become proficient enough in English each year to transfer to mainstream classes. These are the students measured against their schoolmates – of all ability levels – in English-only classes.

This means 88 percent of bilingual students each year don’t learn enough English to transfer to mainstream classes – and these lower-achieving students are not included in the study that purports to show how well bilingual classes work. In California as a whole, the figure is worse: Only 6.7 percent are able to make the jump each year from bilingual to mainstream classes.

The San Francisco study, of course, takes place against the backdrop of the campaign fight over Proposition 227, which would substitute one-year English-immersion classes for most of the state’s bilingual programs. In San Francisco, the average amount of time spent in bilingual classes is four or five years.

This newspaper isn’t ready yet to take a position on Prop. 227. But it would be easier for everyone who wants the best education for students with limited English ability if boosters of bilingual education made arguments that mean something.

One reason polls show overwhelming support for Prop. 227 is that citizens just don’t believe bilingual education works. And when they go beyond the cheerleading about studies such as San Francisco’s, their justified reaction is: This is the best you can come up with?

Some experts believe it takes at least three years before a bilingual student is ready for mainstream classes. That means only about a third of San Francisco bilingual students succeed in the given time. Is the system failing the other two-thirds? This glass isn’t even half full. Let’s look at the local study from this perspective, and let’s demand some meaningful answers.

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