In 1998, Californians voted to pass Proposition 227, the “English for the Children Act,” and dismantle the state’s bilingual-education industry. The results, according to California’s education establishment, were not supposed to look like this: button-cute Hispanic pupils at a Santa Ana elementary school boasting about their English skills to a visitor. Those same pupils cheerfully calling out to their principal on their way to lunch: “Hi, Miss Champion!” A statewide increase in English proficiency among all Hispanic students.
Instead, warned legions of educrats, eliminating bilingual education in California would demoralize Hispanic students and widen the achievement gap. Unless Hispanic children were taught in Spanish, the bilingual advocates moaned, they would be unable to learn English or to succeed in other academic subjects.
California’s electorate has been proved right: Hispanic test scores on a range of subjects have risen since Prop. 227 became law. But while the curtailment of California’s bilingual-education industry has removed a significant barrier to Hispanic assimilation, the persistence of a Hispanic academic underclass suggests the need for further reform.
The counterintuitive linguistic claims behind bilingual education were always a fig leaf covering a political agenda. The 1960s Chicano rights movement (“Chicano” refers to Mexican-Americans) asserted that the American tradition of assimilation was destroying not just Mexican-American identity but also Mexican-American students’ capacity to learn. Teaching these students in English rather than in Spanish hurt their self-esteem and pride in their culture, Chicano activists alleged: hence the high drop-out rates, poor academic performance, and gang involvement that characterized so many Mexican-American students in the Southwest. Manuel Ramirez III, currently a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that bilingual education was necessary to ensure “the academic survival of Chicano children and the political and economic strength of the Chicano community.” The role of American schools, according to this nascent ideology, became the preservation of the Spanish language and Mexican culture for Mexican-origin U.S. residents.
Novel linguistic theories arose to buttress this political platform. Children could not learn a second language well unless they were already fully literate in their native tongue, the newly minted bilingual-ed proponents argued. To teach English to a five-year-old who spoke Spanish at home, you had to instruct him in Spanish for several more years, until he had mastered Spanish grammar and spelling. “Young children are not language sponges,” asserts McGill University psychology professor Fred Genesee, defying centuries of parental observation. Even more surprisingly, the advocates suddenly discovered that the ability to learn a second language improved with age—news to every adult who has struggled through do-it-yourself language recordings.
Such ad hoc justifications rested on shaky scientific ground. Psycholinguistics research supports what generations of immigrants experienced firsthand: the younger you are when you tackle a second language, the greater your chances of achieving full proficiency. Children who learn a second language early in life may even process it in the same parts of the brain that process their first language, an advantage lost as they age.
Only one justification for bilingual education made possible sense. The bilingual theorists maintained that children should be taught academic content—physics, say, or history—in their home language, lest they fall behind their peers in their knowledge of subject matter. But this argument applied most forcefully where bilingual education has always been the rarest: in high school, where, one would hope, teachers use relatively sophisticated concepts. In the earliest grades, however, where bilingual education has always been concentrated, academic content is predominantly learning a language—how to read and write B-A-T, for example. Moreover, most Hispanic children who show up in American elementary school have subpar Spanish skills to begin with, so teaching them in Spanish does not provide a large advantage over English in conveying knowledge about language—or anything else.
The bilingual-education crusade also contained patent inequities that never seemed to trouble its advocates. If teaching a nonnative speaker in his home tongue was such a boon—if it was, as many argued, a civil right—bilingual education should have been provided to every minority-language group, not just to Hispanics, who have been almost the exclusive beneficiaries of the practice. If instructing non-English-speaking students in English was destructive, it would damage a school’s sole Pashto speaker just as much as its Hispanic majority. But minority rights, usually the proud battle cry of self-styled progressives, invariably crumpled before brute political power when it came to bilingual ed. “If it could benefit 82 percent of the kids, you don’t have to offer it to everyone,” says Robert Linquanti, a project director for the government-supported research organization WestEd.
Nor did bilingual-education proponents pause long before counterevidence. In 1965, just as the movement was getting under way in the United States, the Canadian province of Quebec decided that not enough Quebecois children were learning French. It instituted the most efficient method for overcoming that deficit: immersion. Young English-speaking students started spending their school days in all-French classes, emerging into English teaching only after having absorbed French. By all accounts, the immersion schools have been successful. And no wonder: the simple insight of immersion is that the more one practices a new language, the better one learns it. Students at America’s most prestigious language academy, the Middlebury Language Schools, pledge not to speak a word of English once the program begins, even if they are beginners in their target languages. “If you go back to speaking English, the English patterns will reassert themselves and interfere with acquisition of the new grammatical patterns,” explains Middlebury vice president Michael Geisler.
McGill professor Genesee—who opposed Prop. 227 in 1998, when he was directing the education school at the University of California at Davis—hates it when proponents of English immersion in America point to the success of French immersion in Quebec. The English-speaking Quebecois don’t risk losing English, Genesee says, since it remains the predominant Canadian tongue and is a “high-prestige language.”
Whereas if you start American Hispanics off in English, Genesee maintains, “they won’t want to speak Spanish” because it is a “stigmatized, low-prestige language.” Genesee’s argument exposes the enduring influence of Chicano political activism on academic bilingual theory. Hispanic students do risk losing their home tongue when taught in the majority language. Such linguistic oblivion has beset second- and third-generation immigrants throughout American history—not because of the relative status of their home languages but simply because of the power of language immersion and the magnetic force of the public culture. But bilingual-ed proponents know that most Americans don’t view preserving immigrants’ home tongues as a school responsibility. So they publicly promote bilingual education as a pedagogically superior way to teach Hispanics English and other academic subjects, even as they privately embrace the practice as a means for ensuring that Hispanic students preserve their Spanish.
The early Chicano activists sought the “replacement of assimilationist ideals . . . with cultural pluralism,” writes University of Houston history professor Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr. in his book Contested Policy. Bilingual education was the activists’ primary weapon in fighting assimilation because, as they rightly understood, English-language teaching is a powerful tool for encouraging assimilation. In a country as diverse as the United States, fluency in the common tongue is an essential bond among citizens, and the experience of learning it alongside classmates of different ethnic origins reinforces the message that Americans share a common culture. Bilingual-ed proponents often accuse immersion advocates of opposing multilingualism or wanting to stamp out Spanish. This is nonsense. But it is true that maintaining students’ home language for the sake of strengthened ethnic identity is no part of a school’s mandate. Its primary language duty, rather, is to ensure that citizens can understand one another and participate in democracy.
Despite its conceptual contradictions, bilingual education spread inexorably through the federal and state education bureaucracies. The National Education Association, undoubtedly whiffing a jobs bonanza for its unionized members, produced a report in 1966 arguing that teaching Hispanic children in English hurt their self-esteem and led to underachievement. In 1968, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, which provided federal funds for bilingual teaching. When not enough school districts applied for the funds, advocacy groups sued, claiming that the districts were violating Hispanic children’s civil rights. The federal Department of Education agreed, issuing rules in 1975 that penalized schools for not establishing bilingual programs for their non-English-speaking students. Though the Reagan administration cut back on several bilingual-education mandates from the Ford and Carter years, the federal bilingual bureaucracy remained firmly entrenched for decades.
In California, which contains the vast majority of the country’s so-called English learners—students from homes where a language other than English is regularly spoken—the rise of the bilingual machine was swift and decisive. The 1976 Chacon-Moscone Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act declared that bilingual education was the right of every English learner. Elementary schools had to provide native-language instruction if they enrolled a certain number of English learners; bilingual education in the lower grades became the default mode for anyone with a Hispanic surname. (Hispanics have always dominated the “English learner” category. In California, they make up 85 percent of all English learners; the next-largest language group—Vietnamese—constitutes just 2.4 percent.)
Even after Governor George Deukmejian refused to reauthorize the Chacon-Moscone bill in 1987, the bilingual establishment in Sacramento continued to enforce the law’s mandates. The state’s department of education sponsored numerous conferences and reports alleging that bilingual education was necessary for Hispanic success and showered an additional $5,000 a year on bilingual teachers. Administrators and teachers in heavily Hispanic areas often saw themselves as part of the Chicano empowerment movement. “You weren’t worthwhile if you didn’t speak Spanish,” recalls a Santa Ana teacher. “The attitude was: ‘No one should teach our kids but native language speakers.’”
Bilingual-education theory posits a carefully calibrated, multiyear transition from all-Spanish to all-English classes, with the proportion of each language changing every year. An exacting realization of that theory with highly qualified teachers would likely not do irremediable harm—precisely because children are language sponges. But the reality of bilingual education in California was very different. Many low-skilled native Spanish speakers were lured into the education profession by the generous stipends available to bilingual teachers, but they didn’t speak English well enough to make the transition into English teaching. English instruction, when it happened at all, was haphazard and unsystematic, recalls Jane Barboza, director of Student Support Services for the Green Dot Charter Schools. “It was left to the end of the day or to the playground. You’d sing ‘Old MacDonald,’ accompanied by a guitar,” she says. Jose Hernandez, the elementary education coordinator for District Six in the Los Angeles Unified School District, admits: “We never implemented bilingual education with the idea of moving kids into English; we weren’t great at delivering the dual-language aspect of it.”
Such problems were not lost on parents. In 1996, a group of them in the Ninth Street Elementary School in downtown L.A. tried to remove their children from all-Spanish classes and place them in English immersion. When their letters and petitions produced no response, 63 families, organized by poverty advocate Alice Callahan, pulled their children out of classes in protest. The school was jeopardizing their children’s futures by not teaching them English, these poor Central American garment workers maintained. Case in point: after six years in Ninth Street’s “bilingual” program, reported Jill Stewart in New Times LA, a fifth-grader wrote the following passage for his English class: “I my parens per mi in dis shool en I so feol essayrin too old in the shool my border o reri can grier das mony putni gire and I sisairin aliro sceer.” (In fairness to bilingual education, whole-language theory should probably share the blame for that gibberish. Whole language, then dominant in California schools, holds that children should not be instructed—and by no means corrected—in phonics, grammar, or spelling.)
The Ninth Street boycott caught the attention of Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz. Stunned to learn that schools were imprisoning children in Spanish classes against their parents’ will, Unz, along with Santa Ana teacher Gloria Mata Tuchman, drafted a ballot initiative that mandated that all children be taught “overwhelmingly” in English and integrated into mainstream classes, following one year of specialized English instruction. Waivers for bilingual education would be granted only on an individual basis, following a parental request and a school certification that the child had “special . . . needs” that made a bilingual setting more appropriate. Unz could not refrain from an ironic jab at bilingual theory: “All children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English,” announced the English for the Children Act.
The national bilingual-education establishment reacted with fury. Unz was a nativist who wanted to eradicate Spanish and drive out immigrants, it charged. Dismantling bilingual education would put “generations at risk,” as the title of a 1998 educrat conference convened by the University of California at Riverside proclaimed. Joseph Jaramillo, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the Los Angeles Times that the proposition “would send many California schools into crisis because they would be stripped of the very tools necessary to bring children into the mainstream.”
The establishment pointed to studies that showed that bilingual education produced better results than English immersion—and it still points to them whenever challenged. But according to Russell Gersten, an expert in educational-research design, most evaluations in the bilingual-ed field are “poorly constructed and utterly unpersuasive, consisting of makeshift, descriptive research open to multiple interpretations.” Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jay Greene conducted a meta-analysis of the extant studies in 1998. After winnowing out the vast majority on quality grounds, he found a slight edge to bilingual education in conveying academic content. But the programs he reviewed were irrelevant to California’s version of bilingual education, Greene says: “Most were highly resource-intensive pilot programs from the 1960s that resembled French écoles or Jewish day schools. They attracted high-quality teachers and were accountable for results.” Furthermore, most comparisons of bilingual and immersion methods have an inherent bias, since bilingual regimes exempt the lowest-performing English learners from taking tests in English until the teacher deems them ready, whereas immersion regimes test a far greater percentage of English learners.
The establishment marshaled President Bill Clinton and California’s political elite from both parties against Prop. 227. Unions lined up in opposition. The California Teachers Association contributed $2.1 million to defeat the initiative; the American Federation of Labor also pitched in. Jerrold Perenchio, chair of Spanish-language media conglomerate Univision, gave $1.5 million, perhaps out of a sincere belief that bilingual education was the best means of teaching his audience English. All told, those opposed to 227 spent close to $5 million, while the pro-227 forces spent less than $1 million, most of it from Unz’s own account.
The vote wasn’t even close. The initiative passed, 61 to 39 percent. Though preelection polls showed 60 percent of Latinos supporting Prop. 227, only 37 percent voted for it in the end. Many may have been moved at the last minute by claims that the measure was anti-immigrant.
Lawsuits to invalidate or water down 227 began the day after the vote and have continued ever since. Outside the courthouse, efforts to torpedo the initiative were hardly more subtle. The Los Angeles County Office of Education ruled that teaching “overwhelmingly in English” meant teaching in English for 51 percent of the school day; the Riverside and Vista school districts made that 60 percent. Soliciting waivers from parents to put their children back into bilingual classes became so successful a crusade in some districts that the bilingual teaching load barely budged.
The bureaucratic resistance wasn’t able to suppress the good news, however. In Los Angeles, young Hispanic pupils placed in immersion were absorbing spoken English far more quickly than expected and were starting to read and write in English as well, their teachers told the Los Angeles Times. The Oceanside school district, on the Pacific coast north of San Diego, became the emblem for the new English immersion. Superintendent Kenneth Noonan, a former bilingual teacher himself and cofounder of the California Association of Bilingual Education, had opposed Prop. 227, but once it passed, he determined that Oceanside would follow the law to the letter. He applied the criteria for granting bilingual waivers strictly and ended up creating no Spanish-taught classes. He then sat back with considerable trepidation and waited. “Trained bilingual teachers started calling me,” he says. “‘You’ve got to see what’s happening down here,’ they said. I thought: ‘I guess it’s true, the sky has fallen.’ ” But when Noonan visited their classrooms, he found that these new converts to immersion were “glowing with a sense of success.”
The first four months were difficult, Noonan recalls, but then the students took off. Second-grade test scores in reading rose nearly 100 percent in two years—with the average student moving from California’s 13th percentile to its 24th—after staying flat for years. These accomplishments didn’t stop protesters from holding candlelight vigils outside the Oceanside school board’s offices and from filing federal and state civil rights complaints challenging the district’s strict waiver policies. Those complaints were eventually rejected.
Oceanside and its inland neighbor, the Vista Unified School District, formed a natural experiment of sorts. Advocates in Vista actively solicited waivers, and Vista officials granted them to everyone who asked, so that half the eligible students remained in bilingual education. Oceanside’s test-score increases from 1998 to 2000 were at least double those of Vista in nearly every grade, reported the New York Times, despite the districts’ similar English-learner populations—low-income, largely agricultural Spanish speakers. Critics dismissed Oceanside’s test-score gains as nothing remarkable. But today, the Vista Unified School District has shrunk its bilingual program to minimal proportions, and its coordinator of English-language development—Matt Doyle, another former bilingual teacher—speaks like an immersion true believer: “Almost all our students come at such an early age that it’s the perfect opportunity to develop English.”
Two broad observations about the aftermath of Prop. 227 are incontestable. First: despite desperate efforts at stonewalling by bilingual diehards within school bureaucracies, the incidence of bilingual education in California has dropped precipitously—from enrolling 30 percent of the state’s English learners to enrolling 4 percent. (Bilingual proponents love to cite the “low” 30 percent figure as proof that the 1998 reform was unnecessary—but that figure includes all grades from kindergarten through 12th. Bilingual ed was always concentrated heavily in the elementary grades and rare in high school; in some districts, nearly all young Hispanic pupils were enrolled in it.)
Second: California’s English learners have made steady progress on a range of tests since 1998. That progress is all the more impressive since school districts can no longer keep their lowest-performing English learners out of the testing process. In 1998, 29 percent of school districts submitted under half of their English learners to the statewide reading and writing test; today, close to 100 percent of the state’s English learners participate. Despite this, the performance of English learners has improved significantly, from 10 percent scoring “proficient” or “advanced” (the top two categories) in 2003 to 20 percent in 2009. Similarly, on the English proficiency test given to nonnative speakers, the fraction of English learners scoring as “early advanced” or “advanced” (the top two categories) has increased from 25 percent in 2001, when the test was first administered, to 39 percent this year. If the critics of Prop. 227 have the burden of proof to substantiate their warnings of catastrophe, they clearly haven’t met it.
But the bilingual advocates have a number of ways—some valid, others specious—to dismiss or complicate the significance of these broad trends. Drawing unassailable, detailed statistical conclusions about the consequences of 227 may be impossible, given a host of shortcomings in the data. If you wanted to devise conditions that would make it impossible to resolve definitively the immersion-versus-bilingual-ed debate, California’s school policies are what you would create.
The largest obstacle is California’s failure to keep longitudinal information on students. Thanks to pressure from teachers’ unions, the state cannot track a cohort of students or a single student over time. (Such a capacity would be necessary if California were to start awarding teachers merit pay, a bane of unions.) From one year to the next, all data about a specific student—his test scores, say, or whether he was taught in English or Spanish—disappears. Further, even if you could track students’ progress, you would have to account for the fact that students who enrolled in bilingual education after 227 have tended to enter school with weaker language skills than immersion students. This means that test scores that appear to show a clear advantage to immersion—in 2009, for example, only 19 percent of bilingual-ed students scored “advanced” or “early advanced” on the English-proficiency test, compared with 43 percent of immersion students—can be dismissed by bilingual advocates as comparing apples with oranges.
Second, all the tests currently used to measure students’ skills were implemented after 227, and all have been changed or replaced at least once since they were first developed. No test spans the pre- and post-227 period.
Finally, after 227, California and the federal government introduced educational and accountability reforms that changed how schools interacted with students. California began measuring schools’ performance through test results in 1999 and progressively developed more sophisticated means for holding schools accountable. Soon thereafter, the state developed standards for what children should learn in each grade. And it began shifting from whole-language ideology toward phonics instruction for teaching reading. In 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) imposed even more stringent demands on schools, requiring that they improve the test scores of black and Hispanic students and English learners; the result was an intense focus on English learners, accompanied by new programs and funding. Bilingual proponents argue that English learners’ rising test scores in the 2000s reflect these other developments, not the switch to English instruction.
One cannot defeat that claim statistically, since no control group exists not taught under the new federal and state standards. But a key fact weakens the bilingual advocates’ case: school districts have cut back on their waivered bilingual programs in order to meet their annual test-score targets. In 2006, for example, the Lennox School District, near the Los Angeles International Airport, announced that its persistent designation under NCLB as underperforming had prompted it to stop promiscuously handing out waivers for bilingual education. To bilingual backers, among them the California Association of Bilingual Education, this change of policy—repeated elsewhere throughout Southern California—illustrated how destructive NCLB was. But the schools may know something about the efficacy of bilingual education that the advocates do not. This grassroots move to English immersion was a repudiation of the claim that the best way to teach nonnative speakers English skills is to teach them in Spanish.
The schools that have abandoned bilingual education have not regretted it. Every school that has done so in Los Angeles’s District 6 has improved its rating on California’s 800-point Academic Performance Index at least 150 points, says district elementary coordinator Hernandez.
The bilingual industry also argues that Prop. 227 has failed in its mission because the gap between English learners and native English speakers on statewide reading and math tests hasn’t closed. “The 227 advocates weren’t saying: ‘Children aren’t learning English’; they were saying: ‘Look at their reading and math scores: they’re failing,’” asserts Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, director of Californians Together, the state’s most powerful bilingual-education advocacy group. But Spiegel-Coleman is engaging in revisionist history here. Unz and others were clearly decrying Hispanic students’ lack of English proficiency. Moreover, the distinction between learning English and showing proficiency in reading and math is undoubtedly far subtler than most voters were making.
But the “persistent test-score gap” argument has a more fundamental flaw. California defines English learners as students who are less than fluent in English and who occupy the bottom rungs of reading and math achievement. To be reclassified out of English-learner status, a student must score well not just on the test of English proficiency but also on statewide reading and math tests. As soon as a student becomes more capable academically, he leaves the English-learner pool and enters a new category: Reclassified Fluent English Proficient, or RFEP. By fiat, then, the English-learner pool contains only the weakest students, whereas the native-speaker pool contains the entire range of students, from the highest achievers to the lowest. Eliminating the gap between English learners and native speakers (known as “English only” students) is logically impossible. A fairer test of how English learners are performing in relation to English-only speakers would combine English learners and RFEP students into one category and compare them with the English-only students. Yet this the state does not do.
The test-score gap between English learners and English-only students is so large that even narrowing it significantly would take Herculean efforts. In 2003, recall, 10 percent of English learners scored “proficient” or above in a statewide reading and writing test. By 2009, 20 percent of them did, a 100 percent improvement. During the same time, English-only students improved their performance on the same test only 32 percent, from 44 percent proficient or above to 58. The gap between the two groups nevertheless grew from 34 to 38 percentage points, because gains in the English-only category started from such a higher base level than those of the English learners.
Notwithstanding the complexities and inadequacies of the data and the persistence of the achievement gap, the steady advance of English learners on both English proficiency and academic tests vindicates Prop. 227. Had the near-elimination of bilingual education been the disaster that the bilingual advocates predicted, the state and federal accountability measures that they now tout as responsible for English learners’ improvement could not have made up for the loss of bilingual instruction.
Prop. 227 changed the debate in California; widespread bilingual education is no longer on the agenda. To be sure, some die-hard districts are quietly trying to increase Spanish-language classes without attracting attention, but they are in the minority. In public, the bilingual industry finds itself reduced to fighting rearguard actions, such as demanding NCLB tests in Spanish or separate textbooks (in English) for English learners. Californians Together does not even mention bilingual education in the statement of purpose posted on its website. Asked if students should be back in Spanish classes, Spiegel-Coleman demurs: “I’m not suggesting that teaching them in Spanish would solve the problems.”
And the transformation in the classroom has to be seen to be believed. It is extraordinary, for example, to observe elementary school teachers in Santa Ana, once a bastion of bilingual education, talking to their young Hispanic students exclusively in English about the Great Wall of China. It is just as extraordinary to see those students eagerly raising their hands to read English workbooks aloud in class. The main sign that the students are not native English speakers is an occasional reminder about past-tense formation or the pronunciation of word endings, but plenty of English-only speakers in the state need such assistance, too. Schools are not universally following the time frame set out in Prop. 227: a year of separate instruction in English followed by integration with English-only students. In some schools, English learners remain cloistered for a longer period. But regardless of classroom composition, English learners are being taught “overwhelmingly in English,” which is the most important goal of 227.
Self-esteem seems fine. “I didn’t know how to speak English in first grade,” says a husky fourth-grade boy at Adams Elementary School in Santa Ana. “I just figured out at the end of the year and talked all English.” The boy’s classmates, who are sitting next to him at a picnic table under a pepper tree for lunch, jostle to get in on the interview. They are fluent in schoolyard insults. “He’s a special ed!” one boy says of another. “I am not a special ed, you liar!” retorts the target. The fifth-grade girls at a table nearby complain that the boys are lazy. A slender girl has recently arrived from Mexico. Her translator for that day, a tiny blue-eyed girl named Lily, drapes her arm lovingly around the new immigrant and will sit next to her in all their classes, explaining what the teacher is saying. The pair and their fellow pupils amble back into the school after lunch, any signs of psychological distress well concealed. No one reports unhappiness at speaking English in class; on the contrary, they brag that it’s easy.
Such students are clearly better off liberated from California’s inept version of bilingual education. But though test scores have risen, the educational situation for Hispanics remains troubling. Bilingual ed has come and gone, but the conditions that provided the pretext for it—Hispanics’ low academic achievement, high drop-out rates, and gang involvement—live on.
The academic problems afflicting many so-called English learners do not necessarily result from speaking Spanish at home. Students who were born here, who speak little or no Spanish, and who have been taught in English all their lives continue to be designated English learners in middle and high school because of poor test scores. They sound fluent in English, yet may read at a second-grade level. Their vocabulary is highly constricted. As a result, the term “English learner” has taken on an unofficial new meaning: a student who knows English but whose academic skills are extremely low. (Indeed, the state bureaucracy has started referring to some black students whose academic struggles resemble those of Hispanic English learners as “standard English learners.”) A 2006 report by the National Literacy Panel concluded that the literacy problems of many officially designated English learners reflect “underlying processing deficits,” such as “difficulties with phonological awareness and working memory,” rather than language-minority status. The math skills of long-term English learners are as shaky as their reading and writing abilities, also suggesting that their academic shortcomings stem from something other than hearing a second language at home.
It is easy to find such students in Southern California: at ease in spoken English but at sea in what the education profession calls “academic English”—the conventions of writing, logic, and argument. A 17-year-old with lustrous auburn hair hanging below his shoulders and several lip studs is performing skateboard tricks outside Locke High School in Watts. Though his father’s family is exclusively Spanish-speaking, he speaks with the intonations of a black rapper and avoids Spanish. “Spanish is hard, man!” he explains. He failed ninth-grade English: “I didn’t do the homework; I’m not a baby no more.” Manny, a ninth-grader in Santa Ana, remains designated an English learner even though he has never been taught in Spanish and was born in the United States. He failed English last year, he says, “because I would mess on some problem; I didn’t do my work.”
California schools could do far more to improve the performance of such students. Progressive pedagogy continues to handicap their chances of academic mastery. Though the California school system has, in theory, renounced whole-language ideology in favor of phonics instruction, long-term English learners’ phonemic awareness remains weak, high school teachers say. Grammar is not taught systematically or explicitly enough. Separating students by ability levels is taboo, so English learners and RFEP students with academic potential stay tethered to the low performers.
This summer, I observed some excellent teaching in Southern California classrooms. Santa Ana High School’s Brian Lilly stands out for his enthusiastic presentation of the joys of grammar (“Do you see how useful prepositional phrases are, people? They add detail to sentences”) and for his carefully controlled colloquies with students (the antithesis of progressive “student-centered learning”). Yet in other classrooms, I saw mindless collaborative learning exercises and lethargic traditional instruction, with teachers mechanically copying phrases into their PowerPoint projectors or asking students to alphabetize vocabulary lists.
The culture that many Hispanic students bring to school, especially as they age, also hinders progress. Many high school teachers have a sense of futility about assigning homework. “I give them silent reading time in class because they’re not reading at home,” a teacher at Los Angeles’s Oscar De La Hoya Animo charter school tells me. Some students who unself-consciously speak English in elementary school start using Spanish again in middle and high school. Gangbangers use Spanish in class to issue threats in teacher-proof code; other students take up Spanish again as an assertion of Hispanic identity.
Under pressure from the No Child Left Behind act, California school districts are ramping up this year for another costly assault on the English-learner test-score gap—sending specialists to work with middle school students, establishing separate academies for Hispanic males, and increasing outreach to parents. Whether those efforts will achieve the act’s goal of closing the achievement gap remains to be seen.
The fact remains, however, that the English for the Children Act has swept away a misguided drag on assimilation and routed a once-powerful educrat interest group. The significant rise in English learners’ test scores since 1998 demonstrates that bilingual education is not necessary for Hispanic progress. Proposition 227 represents a triumph of common sense over one of the more counterintuitive pedagogical theories to emerge from the sixties’ political agitation.