Article published in The Los Angeles Daily News
It’s been eight years since California voters decided overwhelmingly to dismantle the state’s bilingual-education system and replace it with English language immersion. Although English learners have made enormous strides since then, success has remained elusive for several California school districts.
In the past, many educators and administrators have attributed the lagging performance of these schools to three main factors, regardless of each district’s response to the 1998 mandate: large classes; low per-pupil spending; and neighborhood poverty.
But do these factors fully account for the striking differences in performance between some schools?
Not according to the latest data.
In August, the most recent scores from the California Standardized Testing and Reporting Program were released. Not surprisingly, the results demonstrated that the switch to immersion has had a positive net effect in improving English proficiency statewide. English learners who have been reclassified as fluent scored significantly higher in both math and language arts than the average California pupil.
These results gelled with last year’s California English Language Development Test, which gauges the English proficiency of students who speak a foreign language at home. In the first year of that exam, only 25 percent of the state’s English learners scored in the top two categories of language proficiency. By 2005, 47 percent did.
If we compare the STAR and CELDT scores with district-specific data on per-pupil spending, average class size, and the number of students receiving subsidized meals (a widely accepted measure of student body affluence), the results suggest that these common scapegoats are not the underlying problem.
In San Jose, the school district’s per-pupil spending significantly exceeds the California state average. The SJUSD houses about four fewer students in each classroom – and has fewer low-income students – than the average California school.
In other words, San Jose beats the California average on all three counts. According to the critics in the balconies of California’s teacher unions, San Jose should be ahead of the curve.
But since 1998, San Jose has been the school district that has most fervently resisted English language immersion. It challenged the provision in federal court shortly after the law passed, and won court approval to continue teaching Spanish-speaking students in Spanish.
As a result of this and likely other factors, San Jose’s test results are unimpressive, conspicuously dragging down the state average.
When the Los Angeles Unified School District is compared to the California average, per-pupil spending is higher, the classrooms are larger, and significantly more students are from low-income households.
Like San Jose, L.A. challenged the 1998 dismantling of bilingual education in court, and this undoubtedly delayed the district’s acceptance of immersion. As such, as late as 2001, some of the district’s schools were still clinging to old bilingual-education practices, and its English learners substantially trailed their peers statewide on standardized tests.
But since then, the LAUSD has made substantial changes to emphasize early English learning and immersion. Consequently, the district’s progress – especially on the CELDT exam – has been astounding.
The simple fact is that some schools are succeeding remarkably, while others fall behind – regardless of spending, class sizes, or demographics.
So what makes it possible for districts like the LAUSD to rise above the obvious challenges and succeed in spite of the common culprits?
Jesus Limon has some answers. He is the LAUSD’s director of language acquisition. According to Limon, L.A.’s progress is a direct result of a districtwide effort. Our staff works very hard. But the community plays an important role as well… Everyone from teachers to parents to students feels the pressure to perform.
By all accounts, Proposition 227 has been unevenly applied. But standardized test scores have demonstrated that by focusing on early acquisition of English, these old excuses for poor results can be overcome.
David White is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute.
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