Good News is No News is Good News

The release of California’s third year of post-Prop. 227 statewide test scores was surely the most dramatic non-story of this past week.

The academic progress of the state’s more than one million immigrant students was good, very good. Nationally-normed percentile ranks for the benchmark second graders, the grade most affected by the change in educational curriculum, rose another three points each in reading and in math, over twice the gains made by their non-limited English classmates.

Thus, less than three years after advocates of bilingual education predicted doom following the dismantling of their program, California’s English learner second graders have now improved their reading scores by a total of 12 points and their math scores by 17, a dramatic gain of well over 60% in each subject area. By contrast, California’s widely heralded multi-multi-billion-dollar class size reduction program seems to have raised student achievement by just 2 or 3 points during that same period.

Even these impressive gains among English learners may be under-stating the reality. Increasing numbers of the most successful English learners have now actually learned English sufficiently well that they are no longer considered to fall into that category. Obviously, removing large numbers of the most successful students from any administrative category will tend to retard its apparent average gains.

But regardless of the degree of post-Prop. 227 immigrant gains—whether dramatic or very dramatic—this important news was greeted with deafening silence by both the California and the national media. A story buried deep within the Los Angeles Times included a couple of sentences on the contribution of English immersion; an editorial in the more conservative Los Angeles Daily News did the same; and that was almost that for evaluating the impact of what had been one of the most sweeping and controversial educational changes to ever occur in America, opposed by nearly everyone in California except the voters.

At this point, my conservative friends are no doubt chortling at such further proof of the enormous bias of the mainstream liberal media, whose conspiratorial delight in hiding and downplaying the success of teaching immigrant children the English language now seems unmasked. But the truth is very different. The news media no longer covers the dramatic success of Prop. 227 in improving the education and lives of over a million young immigrant children in California—because it is no longer news!

When a new educational policy has been proclaimed a dramatic success in endless dozens of major California newspaper headlines, banner and otherwise, almost from the beginning of that policy; when America’s national newspaper of record, the New York Times, ran the account of that dramatic and surprising success as its national lead story just a year ago, generating a flurry of resultant articles, columns, editorials, and television reports around the country; and when during that entire three year period there was scarcely been a single major contrary claim of failure or harm—at that point the success of English immersion has begun hardening into the new conventional wisdom, worthy of continued reporting but hardly major headlines.

This new conventional wisdom has even begun at long last crossing over into the political world. California’s incumbent Democratic Governor Gray Davis had been a strong opponent of Prop. 227, but after its passage and success, quickly repositioned himself as an supporter, massively increasing its implementation budget, threatening to veto any contrary legislation, and naming one of its strongest policy advocates as his appointee to the State Board of Education.

During 1998, Dick Riordan, the former Los Angeles Mayor likely to challenge Davis, was virtually the only prominent political figure willing to ignore nearly all his timorous advisors and back the measure; his courageous support for Prop. 227 is now expected to constitute an important element of his gubernatorial campaign.

There are even accounts that many of the remaining so-called “bilingual” programs have vastly increased their use of English, leading them to more closely resemble English immersion classes in practice if not in name. Hundreds or thousands of other elected officials, administrators, or pundits have quietly shifted their positions, much like others did within a few years following the Fall of Communism.

For years now, no serious news outlet would dare run a headline “Russian Communism Unpopular in Poland,” and similarly the continued rise of California immigrant test scores has become the expected norm, greeted with less and less surprise each year. Sometimes the best news is indeed that there is no new news, and that the conventional wisdom continues to hold.

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