English immersion keeps proving its worth
The headlines were small when California education officials released this year’s numbers on the effectiveness of the English-only classroom instruction mandated by the 1998 Proposition 227.
Those numbers again look good. Not as improved as in some previous years, but this is partly because the scoring scale on the state’s English Language Development Test changed last year.
Here’s what happened: In the just-completed school year, 36 percent of the 1.3 million English-learner students in public schools who took the test demonstrated “advanced” or “early advanced” English skills. At the same time, 33 percent scored as “fluent.” Both figures were 4 percent improvements over last year, with accurate comparisons to previous years impossible because of the scoring change.
This won’t be enough to satisfy critics of Proposition 227, who say its insistence on mainstreaming English-learning students in regular classrooms slows their language progress. Since 1998, several academic papers written by scholars who firmly opposed 227 have contended that the change did not produce any improvement in English language skills of minority children.
That’s balderdash, as any English-speaking Californian who lived through the 1980s and ’90s knows. During that period, ever-increasing numbers of high school graduates who had been taught in bilingual classes where most instruction was in foreign languages ” primarily Spanish ” joined the work force and had great difficulty communicating with customers and bosses.
Walk into most grocery stores and banks today and service personnel include faces at least as diverse as back then, but communication difficulties are not nearly as widespread. Those problems led to passage of 227 by a whopping 2-1 margin despite opposition from most newspapers, virtually the entire education establishment and every major politician in the state.
The proposition’s easy passage was facilitated by voters fed up with living in a society where increasing numbers could not speak the national language and by parents of young immigrants, who saw their kids taking many years to learn even rudimentary English in bilingual classes whose teachers received large supplementary pay for their ability to instruct in foreign tongues from Spanish to Vietnamese.
By 2003, five years after 227 passed, fully 43 percent of the state’s English learners demonstrated proficiency on the language test, up from 25 percent in 2001, the first year the test was given. Those numbers kept increasing until administrators changed the scoring system and now they are again on the upswing.
But improving English skills is not enough. In a state where demographic forecasts indicate today’s English learners and their children might be the majority by 2040, they must gain other skills, too. Current achievement gaps between English learners and native English speakers in other subjects must be closed, and soon, or the state will not be able to compete in the global economy.
That means more and more English learners must have access to college prep course work and advanced placement classes.
But they won’t be funneled in that direction unless expectations for them rise among teachers and administrators. Long-held low expectations are best evidenced by the fact that in most years, far fewer English-learner students who score in the advanced or early advanced categories are reclassified as fluent in English, a switch needed to make them eligible for many college prep courses.
That has to change, if only because it’s rank injustice, often condemning students who don’t get reclassified to far more difficult paths toward potential college graduation than they’d have if reclassified. Lack of college prep coursework often forces students who might otherwise qualify for admission to the California State University system and other four-year campuses to go the community college route, with all the bureaucratic tangles involved in transferring to a four-year school.
The good thing today is that Jack O’Connell, the state schools superintendent who is about to become a Democratic candidate for governor, appears to get it. When releasing this year’s test results, he noted that increasing the availability of more rigorous coursework to newly English-proficient students is both a moral and an economic imperative.
“All of our students need to be well prepared,” he said. “The achievement gap needs to be closed … if California is going to remain the eighth largest economic engine in the world.”
All of which means that successful as Proposition 227 has turned out to be, it was only a start. A good one for sure, despite its persistent critics, but one that must be followed up right now.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.
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