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