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Monday, September 26, 2016

California Proposition 58: A Solution Looking for a Non-existent Problem

In 1998, it was Hispanic parents who clamored to get rid of bilingual education. Bilingual education was not a bridge but a jail. Hispanic children languished in bilingual classrooms for years and years, and never attained the proficiency that would allow them to go to college. The parents were successful in getting Prop 227 passed, not so much because of the force of their own arguments, but largely through the ideological effect of English-only whites who maintain that America is an English-speaking country, and so students should be taught in English.

The California Department of Education says they are already ensuring that English learners:

...acquire full proficiency in English as rapidly and effectively as possible and attain parity with native speakers of English. AND ...within a reasonable period of time, achieve the same rigorous grade-level academic standards that are expected of all students.

Prop 227 did not get rid of bilingual education. Bilingual education is still readily available. the difference is previously, the school decided whether a child would be placed in the bilingual program. Currently, it is the parents who decide. Most parents choose English immersion.

Since the main effect of Prop 58 is to undo Prop 227, we must next investigate whether removing the decision-making power from parents is actually good for kids.

The proponents of Prop 58 claim that the American Institutes for Research (AIR) concluded “there is no conclusive evidence to support the opponents claims that Prop 227 has been successful. AIR is a credible source, so I took a closer look. The first thing to note is the cited report was published in 2006, and looked at the previous 5 years. It specifically said that because of the many variables involved, “There is no conclusive evidence that one instructional model for educating English learners, such as full English immersion or a bilingual approach, is more effective for California’s English learners than another(method)...”

In other words, a dichotomous approach does not work. AIR was unable to isolate pre-Prop 227 or post-Prop 227 as the independent variable. That is a little different from what the proponents of Prop 58 claim the AIR report said. Furthermore, AIR was unable to control for the numerous other variables that impact Hispanic achievement. So what kind of evidence is there? The AIR report itself observed,

During this time, the performance gap between English learners and native English speakers has remained virtually constant in most subject areas for most grades. That these gaps have not widened is noteworthy given the substantial increase in the percentage of English learners participating in statewide tests, as required by federal and state accountability provisions.

So even though many more English learners took the statewide tests, they did not bring down test scores as was expected. Ten years have passed since that AIR report was published. Who knows, but what a new report might find conclusive evidence, or at least a greater quantity of circumstantial evidence.

Lacking an experimental methodology, the AIR evaluation often relied on case studies, which is simply a systematic look at an anecdote. I have a few anecdotes/case studies of my own. I have not worked much with Hispanic students because most of my 40 years of teaching took place in Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Japan or in private schools located in Japan and Shanghai. I was also an in-service training provider to public secondary schools located on the Navajo reservations in Arizona. One time I was also assigned to a 6-year-old Hispanic boy who had been in horrible car accident to be his at-home teacher. I will summarize each experience.

1. The Hispanic kindergarten student. I began teaching this boy the last three months of school. I met with his classroom teacher who gave me a packet of papers to color and a copy of his third-quarter report card. His grades were very bad, and his progress was below grade level on almost every measure. His teacher referred to him as “one of those typically dumb Hispanics.” Back home, I threw away the papers she gave me, and spent the weekend creating a kindergarten program for this boy. Within three months, he was reading English and performing at grade level on every measure. His parents were thrilled.

2. The Navajos. I did not work with the Navajo students directly. At my in-service presentations, their secondary teachers complained that they did not need the information I had been commissioned by the administrators to present. They asked me to tell them how they could use their subject area textbooks to teach their students to read. I chucked my carefully planned presentation (including hands-on activities) and immediately improvised a seminar on phonics and reading comprehension using science and history books. The teachers loved it (but the administration was peeved at me. Whatever).

3. Japan. One fall, a large group of parents suddenly enrolled their children in the junior high where I was actually teaching science. The parents took this drastic measure because their children were refusing to go to school due the extreme bullying that sometimes occurs in Japanese schools. The principal pulled me out of my morning classes, and asked me to create a half-day transitional program for these kids. They studied art, music and PE in the afternoon in the mainstream class. After three months, I put them in the mainstream math classes. After the second term, I put them in my mainstream science class. After the third term, they were fully mainstreamed, including English and social studies.

4. China. I have spent 4 academic years teaching in China using English only with great success, even with first graders who speak zero English when they start. Within one year, all but just a handful were reading and comprehending at American second-grade level. Their English speech still retains errors attributable to Chinese syntax, but those errors will fix themselves eventually.

42.8% of community college students are Hispanic in 2015. Overall, the number of Hispanic students in college has been increasing dramatically year over year, while the number of white students in college has been falling over the last five years. According to Pew, a record number of Hispanic students have enrolled in college, and the high school drop-out rate is the lowest it has ever been. The numbers on both measures have been positive since 2000. English Only as a factor contributing to these results did not occur to Pew, but it is as likely a factor as any of the others that Pew did suggest. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Latino college completion is on the rise and in the past decade the number of Latinos with bachelor’s degrees or higher increased 80 percent. Of course, this achievement is not due solely to Prop 227. Programs such as AVID, TRIO, Gear Up, and others also contribute to positive outcomes.

As far as the proponents' claim that Prop 58 would expand second language opportunities for native or fluent English-speaking students, a proposition is unnecessary. Schools are already free to add foreign languages to their curriculum, or create foreign language immersion programs.

It is unfortunate that a majority of the California legislature supports Prop 58. They seem unaware of the history since the legislature in place when Prop 227 was approved has either retired or termed out. The legislature also seems unduly impressed by the articulate but empty arguments of the proponents when compared compared to the emotional tenor of the opponent's arguments. In fact, the proponents' statements in the Voter's Guide read like one of those long-winded sales pitches with a lot of beautiful words that actually say nothing. For example, the proponents introduce a paragraph in the Voter's Guide by saying, "Here's what Prop. 58 actually says:," and then proceeds to quote, not Prop 58, but the already existing California Education Code. In this way, proponents mislead voters into thinking that Prop 58 will do something that is not already mandated, when in fact the law already mandates it, and Prop 58 is unnecessary. No wonder the less sophisticated opponents got emotional.

There is no need to fix a non-existent problem. In short, the stakeholders with the most compelling interest, that is, parents of Hispanic students, do not want Prop 58. That should be good enough for the rest of us. Vote NO on Prop 58.