Is 99% Failure A "Success"?
Orange Unified's English Immersion Program

Jeff McQuillan
California State University, Fullerton

Proponents of California's popular anti-bilingual education initiative, Proposition 227, seem finally to have some evidence to leave their opponents speechless. A report issued last week [see Los Angeles Times, 22 August 1998] on Orange Unified School District's first year of 227-like "English immersion" deemed the program to be a huge success. "See," 227 supporters will say, "children really can learn English quickly when they're immersed in it." A closer look at the actual numbers in the report, however, reveals just the opposite is true: Students are failing to learn a sufficient amount of English to survive in school at alarmingly high rates. Judged by the new requirements imposed by 227, the district's experience is nothing short of a disaster.

Orange Unified received a waiver last year from the California State Board of Education to teach its English language learners almost exclusively in English. Their just released report compared how many students were at various levels of English proficiency at both the beginning and the end of the school year. After only seven months, the district boasted, 81% of the immersion students knew enough of the language so that they could understand specially taught classes in English in regular school subjects such as science, social studies, and math. Further, the district claimed that English immersion "accelerated" their students' progress in school, as evidenced by the reduction in the number of students at the lowest two levels of English fluency, from 38% to only 19%.

Should we be impressed by these numbers? Not in the least. First, it is impossible to say whether these results show an "acceleration" in how well students were picking up English, since the district provided no information on how students fared under a previous bilingual education program. Orange Unified claims kids did better in the new program, but the logical question to ask is: Better than what? No basis for comparison is provided.

Second, while the 81% figure sounds impressive, a glance at the numbers reveals that three-fourths of these students were already fluent enough in English to handle a modified curriculum before the new program started. It's a bit like claiming to have hit a home run when you were already on third base. More importantly, the district only claims that these 81% are ready for "specially designed" classes intended just for English language learners. But this is not what Proposition 227 mandates. The initiative calls for students to be placed in regular classrooms, alongside native English speakers, after the one year immersion. So how many students did Orange Unified prepare last year for such "mainstream" classrooms? A mere six out of 3,549 students, or less than 1%. This is success?

Third, and most critically, the report almost completely ignores the rather sobering discovery that, after nearly 1 year of English immersion, half of the students who spoke little to no English at the beginning of the program were still not able to understand enough English to do school work even in a "specially designed" classroom. This means, of course, that these children will continue to fall further behind their fluent English-speaking peers in their academic skills as they languish in beginning "immersion" courses.

To Orange Unified's credit, the district was not in favor of the 1 year limit on English instruction imposed by Proposition 227. It recognized that hardly any of its own students would be ready to compete with native English speakers in such a ridiculously short period of time. But now it's too late. Orange, like other school districts in California, will be forced to implement an impossible program of 1-year English immersion, despite the evidence of its obvious failure. The results may leave us speechless, but anyone who thinks this is "success" is truly clueless.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Copyright © 1998 by Jeff McQuillan. All rights reserved.