OK everybody, first the good news, then the bad. The good news is that bilingual education is getting the scrutiny it deserves. The bad news is that much of what people are saying is misleading and does nothing to shed light on bilingual education’s effectiveness.

Consider the recent backlash in California. On June 2, after months of wrangling by both pro and anti-bilingual forces, Californians virtually eliminated bilingual education by passing Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative. The campaign was full of twisted statistics, the most egregious of which was this oft-repeated claim made by Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed the Proposition 227 campaign:

“Of the 1.3 million California schoolchildren — a quarter of our state’s total public school enrollment — who begin each year classified as not knowing English, only about 5 percent learn enough English by year’s end, implying a 95 percent failure rate for existing programs.”

What sounds like an indefensible indictment of California’s bilingual education system, is in fact an empty statistic. All it means is that, each year, 5 percent of those students, who have been classified as “Limited English Proficient,” are reclassified as fluent in English.

Without the proper context, such as the average length of time a student is in a bilingual program, the number is meaningless.

Jim Shultz, writing in the Democracy Center On-line, makes an excellent point when he comments, “Saying that 95 percent of students fail each year is like saying that 75 percent of high school students fail to graduate each year because they happen to be freshmen, sophomores and juniors. If a kindergartner doesn’t become fluent in one year, is she a failure.”

Nevertheless, with few exceptions, and in spite of expert opinion that one year is an insufficient amount of time for a student to learn academic English, California’s Limited English Proficient students will now be given just one year in an intensive English immersion course before being tossed into the mainstream.

Two months later, aftershocks from Proposition 227 are being felt here in Arizona.

Recently, the Arizona Department of Education released figures that echo those reported in California.

According to its report, just 2.8 percent of Arizona’s Limited English Proficient students are reclassified as fluent in English each year. Sound familiar?

I am told that there is a Spanish saying, “What people don’t know, they create on their own.” Without a contextual framework for that 2.8 percent, Arizonans might unfairly assume that Arizona’s schools have a 97.2 percent failure rate when it comes to teaching Limited English Proficient students English.

In fact, many East Valley school districts are skeptical of the DOE’s numbers. For example,in Kyrene this year, 388 students will be classified as having limited proficiency and will receive English as a Second Language services from the district.

The majority will learn enough English to re-enter the academic mainstream within four years.

Gilbert will serve approximately 525 (using last year’s numbers) limited proficiency students. Mesa will enroll more than 4,300 ESL students. Both districts estimate that their students will achieve adequate fluency within three to four years.

This snapshot reveals two things: Our East Valley districts produce fluent students at a rate much faster than the DOE’s numbers would imply, and in most cases, they use English as a Second Language in lieu of bilingual education.

If there is an indictment of bilingual education to be found, it is not there in the East Valley.

The DOE should track the percentage of students who are reclassified as fluent in English after one year, two years and so on, as well as the type of program used and the socioeconomic background of the student.

Then we might have a clearer picture of which methods work best for Arizona’s students. All we have now is a meaningless number that someone like Mr. Unz can use to manipulate public opinion.

Already, a group of Tucson parents and teachers is campaigning for a ballot initiative, “English For the Children of Arizona,” that would end bilingual education in Arizona. Alarmed by the seemingly slow rate at which Limited English Proficient students are gaining fluency in English, they believe bilingual education perpetuates illiteracy in Hispanic students.

Mr. Unz is providing assistance. Watch for his money to follow later.

With all due respect to those parents, the ballot box is not the proper venue for deciding the fate of bilingual education in Arizona. If we fling this matter into the public arena, then everybody with an agenda, either pro- or anti-bilingual education will move in for the kill.

Bilingual education is not evil. It is merely one of many methods used to teach Limited English Proficient students to speak, read and write in English. It should not be the scapegoat for Arizona’s failure to address the needs of its language-minority students. Furthermore, any changes in teaching practice should be made without political interference.

Sound pedagogy should never take a back seat to politics.

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