Whatever your position on bilingual education – and there are few issues in America that raise blood pressure more – you should know this: The debate has passed the ideologues and the advocates by.
The issue is no longer theory against theory. It’s no longer the tortured statistics of this Institute for the Preservation of Bilingual Education against the monaural histrionics of that English Only camp.
The hard numbers are just too stark.
The numbers regarding California’s conversion to English-only curricula in 1998 are out, and they cannot be denied. Immersing kids who don’t speak English among teachers and other students who do accelerates their learning curve. Often by a lot.
The Los Angeles Times now believes. Two years ago, The Times passionately opposed Proposition 227, the California ballot measure that forced public educators to abandon bilingual ed. It predicted catastrophe. Now its front pages chronicle the successes of foreign-born kids learning English.
The New York Times has seen the light, publishing in August an absolutely celebratory analysis of events in California education. On May 17, the Los Angeles Daily News published this headline: “English-only works.” And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch – one of the most unapologetically liberal newspapers in America – has become convinced of the numbers pouring out of California, numbers that contradict one of its most cherished tenets.
Standardized test results, the paper editorially noted on Aug. 24, clearly indicate that “early immersion may be the best way to ensure that students master their new language and succeed in their new home.”
Just two years after the enormously controversial Prop 227 blazed into law in California, the reading scores of limited-English-speaking second graders rose 9 percentage points – from the 19th percentile to the 28th percentile. In math, the average score rose 14 points, lifting those same kids from the 27th percentile to the 41st.
Yes, much of the test results are still abysmal. No, the numbers are not as sensational for older kids as they are for the younger ones. And, no, none of the results are in any way conclusive. But for anyone whose bottom-line interest is providing real educational opportunity for immigrant kids, such news constitutes a profound turn-around for their prospects in America. Unless this trend suddenly reverses, it presages the best educational success story in decades.
Regardless, the California experience has sailed well beyond the intentions – good or bad – of the people advocating change. People like millionaire activist Ron Unz, who has been utterly vilified for underwriting the campaign against bilingual ed – are no longer an essential part of this story. The bogeymen no longer command center stage.
Instead, the story is about people like Ken Noonan, a founder 30 years ago of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, who are acknowledging that immersion works.
“I thought it would hurt kids,” said Noonan, the superintendent of Oceanside Elementary School District north of San Diego. “The exact opposite has occurred, totally unexpected by me.”
Indefatigable advocates of bilingual ed contend all test scores are rising in California now, not just those of bilingual students. They insist the reasons have more to do with other reforms than they do with banishing bilingual ed.
But comparisons between districts such as Noonan’s – which has embraced immersion – and those immigrant-heavy districts that have fought it belie the argument that everyone’s doing better.
The debate over bilingual education on the Left Coast has gelled around the kids and their educational future.
And in California, the kids’ future is brightening.