Whenever there’s good news about California schools, it seems, Ron Unz pops up like a puppet with a painted smile. The maverick millionaire who spearheaded the drive to abolish bilingual education is often first in line to take credit for the hard work of teachers and students.

Unz was at it again this week following the release of statewide test scores showing substantial improvement in some areas, particularly Orange County. He crowed about the remarkable progress at one school, San Juan Elementary, where poor, Latino students posted double-digit advances in some grades and subjects on the Stanford 9 test.

Unz was eager to suggest that the gains were due to the switch to English instruction, which happened early and quickly at the San Juan Capistrano school. At the same time, he and other critics blamed bilingual education for more modest progress made by Santa Ana Unified School District students, who are struggling to learn English just like their counterparts at San Juan, within the Capistrano Unified district.

Here’s what Unz would have us believe: San Juan switches decisively to English and does great; Santa Ana schools stick stubbornly to bilingual instruction and don’t do so well.

But his boasting is based on a statistical sleight of hand.

Like many politicians, Unz highlights only those facts he can use to prove his point. Unfortunately, most people don’t look beyond the propaganda to find the truth. Even gullible editorial writers took Unz’s bait in their rush to confirm the so-called wisdom of English immersion.

Comparing Scores at 2 Schools

The fact is that even with this year’s impressive progress, San Juan students overall did no better at most grade levels than students at Walker Elementary in Santa Ana, a school where half the kids still are enrolled in bilingual education. (Parents may request waivers to keep their children in bilingual classes.)

In fact, San Juan is barely catching up to the Santa Ana school, which has similar enrollment and demographics, with high percentages of English-language learners and families on welfare. San Juan was able to make large leaps partly because the school was so far behind in 1998, the first year the Stanford 9 was administered statewide.

Take fourth-grade math, for example. At San Juan, students doubled their scores, reported as national percentile ranks. They went from 16 to 32 in two years. Yet, the Walker fourth-graders scored five points higher in the latest math test, reaching the 37th percentile. They started higher too, at 23 in 1998.

So true, the gains in fourth-grade math were smaller at Walker. But the scores at the Santa Ana school were higher in the subject to begin with.

This is not to detract from the outstanding effort made by students and staff at San Juan. In fact, some students there truly outdid themselves.

But even the district’s own test expert doesn’t give all the credit to English immersion, mandated under Proposition 227, the 1998 Unz initiative that dismantled bilingual education in California.

“Simply passing the law, simply changing from Spanish to English, is not going to yield the kinds of progress we’re seeing at that school,” said Jeff Bristow, head of elementary instructional services for Capistrano Unified.

District officials put a lot of effort into boosting test scores at San Juan, said Bristow. They devoted time and resources, providing books, supplies and teacher training. In other words, San Juan got a lot of extra attention. Bristow himself was assigned as a mentor to the school, which he visited weekly to monitor its progress and even help unpack new books.

The effort paid off.

San Juan third-graders, for example, posted double-digit gains in all four tests since 1998, jumping almost 30 points in math. Two years ago, they lagged behind Walker in every subject at that grade level. This year, they raced ahead of the Santa Ana students in every third-grade test.

That’s terrific. But the lead for San Juan vanishes among fourth- and fifth-graders, who have had longer exposure to English immersion. They now perform roughly at par with their Santa Ana counterparts.

Of the eight tests in those two higher grades, the results were a wash. Each school did better than the other in three tests with an almost equal point spread, and they tied in two.

Scores also were split between the two schools in second grade, each taking the lead in two tests. But at this grade level, Walker got its own chance to shine in math. The Santa Ana second-graders scored in the 48th percentile, a 15-point gain over 1998. By comparison, San Juan second-graders scored 30 in math this year, gaining just 7 points over two years ago.

What happened to the supposed superiority of English immersion at San Juan, ballyhooed in an Orange County Register editorial? And is it fair to single out Walker as a slow-advancing school, as it was in a Times story this week?

Santa Ana board member Rosemarie Avila took the opportunity to point the finger at bilingual education, which is still the preference of many parents in her district. Yet, the scores don’t support her theory either.

Santa Ana district officials looked at test results for 11 schools with high numbers of students in bilingual classes, compared with 13 schools with low bilingual enrollment. There was no difference between the two groups in terms of their performance progress, said Linda Kaminski, chief academic officer for Santa Ana Unified.

So where’s the beef?

Unz dutifully repeated Avila’s unsubstantiated, anti-bilingual analysis in an e-mail message, attaching the local newspaper articles to bolster his argument.

Unz claimed that the “astonishing” progress at San Juan provided a “verdict” in favor of Proposition 227. He beamed that the school’s performance could earn its teachers $ 25,000 bonuses under California’s new system of educational rewards.

I’m sure Unz will be there for the photo opportunity.

That’s how it goes in the bilingual wars. Praise for one school using English instruction. Scorn for others holding their bilingual ground. Forget the inconvenient fact that the school you praise is scoring roughly equal to the school you scorn.

Walker’s principal, Robert DeBerry, remains hopeful because his Santa Ana students have surpassed their growth goals in all but one subject, third-grade reading. All their other scores increased by at least five points, and he’s confident they can eventually move up to the national average.

But he doesn’t see scores when he looks at the students at Walker. He sees kids trying to make it despite disadvantages of language and economics.

He looks at the third-grade girls and thinks of his grandmother, Ramona Peralta, daughter of an immigrant from Hermosillo, Mexico. Peralta, born in Yorba Linda before the turn of the century, never got past third grade. That’s the year her mother died, and she dropped out to care for her three siblings.

There but for fortune, DeBerry thinks. In another era, his third-graders might have had to quit school too. Today, they have so many more opportunities. And they have a future.

They can do it, even though they face many more obstacles than his own children who attend a high-performing school in a more affluent area in Costa Mesa. DeBerry also has two grown kids who went on to college.

As fourth-generation Americans, the great-grandchildren of Ramona Peralta have come a long, long way.

And that’s how we should measure progress.

Comments are closed.