Last month I participated in a debate on our forthcoming Massachusetts “English” initiative, sponsored by Lesley University in Cambridge, one of America’s largest institutions for the training of bilingual education teachers.
When first invited, I had been informed that the debate would follow a two-against-two format, with myself squaring off against a prominent national advocate of bilingual education such as Stephen Krashen, James Cummins, or James Crawford, and with each of us being paired with a Massachusetts educator of similar views. This proposed format seemed ideal, and I gladly accepted the invitation, suggesting Lincoln Tamayo, a prominent Massachusetts educator and chairman of our initiative campaign as my partner.
Unfortunately, shortly before the debate, I was informed that the format had been completely changed. The proposed national advocate of bilingual education would be replaced by State Representative Jarrett Barrios, a shrewd local politician who, although completely ignorant of the theory and practice of bilingual programs, had opportunistically seized on their defense as a means of gaining greater political visibility for his planned State Senate bid and perhaps a future run at statewide office. Barrios had wrangled the invitation by (falsely) claiming to be organizing a pro-bilingual education counter-initiative.
Also, the Lesley officials organizing the debate had decided that Mr. Tamayo’s participation in the debate was inappropriate on the grounds that he was known to be a strong opponent of bilingual education, and therefore could not be objective on the education merits of the issue. Instead, the panel would contain two educational administrators from Framingham, who would provide a completely neutral and objective presentation of the enormous success of their own bilingual education programs.
Under typical circumstances, a three-to-one match-up of debate participants and speaking time on one side of an issue might be deemed sufficient, especially since that side was also supported by the inevitably pro-bilingual 95% of the audience. But Lesley University President Margaret McKenna believed otherwise, utilizing her position as debate moderator to repeatedly denounce the ignorance and bias of the anti-bilingual position. Still, such a four-against-one debate is hardly extraordinary by the standards of my 1998 California campaign, during which one televised debate stacked forty-five to one in participants, though with a rather more equal allocation of speaking time.
Many of the arguments made against the initiative were the familiar ones from the California campaign or even the Harvard debate of the previous week. However, the Framingham administrators introduced a new element, the dramatic claim that 92% of their limited-English students had passed the statewide MCAS exam, a truly remarkable level of immigrant achievement if true. Since I had scarcely ever even heard of Framingham previously, I was reduced to expressing polite but considerable skepticism at such extraordinary results, a response that (unsurprisingly) provoked choruses of hostile jeers from the hundreds of bilingual teachers in the audience. Unsurprisingly, the Framingham results immediately became the leading talking-points later used by Rep. Barrios in several major subsequent debates, and was even prominently featured in a rather laudatory Boston Globe story on the Framingham program.
Much of my skepticism derived from my experience during previous “English” campaigns in California and Arizona, during which the sudden appearance of widely touted educational statistics demonstrating the remarkable success of various bilingual programs was a common occurrence. All those earlier cases had been based on false data, and just as I suspected, the Framingham case was no exception.
During the Lesley debate, I repeatedly suggested that the Framingham numbers might be as high as they were because the district was simply not testing many of its limited-English students, a now-notorious trick frequently employed by bilingual administrators to inflate their average student performance. The charge was vehemently denied at the time, but has since been proven completely accurate, based on the official data provided by Massachusetts Department of Education web site. In addition, even the passing rate of those students who took the exam was far lower than alleged.
For example, in 2001, although 58% of Framingham limited-English 4th graders who took the MCAS English exam passed, most of those students had not even learned enough English to be tested; overall, fully 74% failed to pass the exam that year. An almost identical 73% of Framingham limited-English 4th graders failed to pass the MCAS Math exam. For higher grades, the results were even worse, with 79% of 8th graders failing to pass the MCAS English exam, and 91% failing to the pass the Math exam. There is a considerable difference between having over 90% of students passing an exam and having over 90% of students failing to pass an exam, though perhaps such a distinction is not obvious to bilingual administrators.
Since Framingham had been selected by bilingual advocates and the media as having one of the most outstandingly successful bilingual programs in Massachusetts, I suspect that any close examination of other districts would reveal an even starker degree of failure, and there is already some evidence in this regard. For example, during 2000, just 116 of 2652 limited-English 10th graders in Massachusetts passed the MCAS English exam and 206 passed the Math exam, and next year passing both of these exams will become a requirement for high- school graduation in the Bay State. If continued, these results would prevent over 96% of Massachusetts immigrant students from receiving their high school diplomas, a truly horrific result, which Massachusetts officials are ignoring at their future peril.
Despite this, perhaps it is too harsh to characterize the faulty information presented by Framingham bilingual administrators as actual intentional fraud rather than sad delusion. Many advocates of Spanish-almost-only bilingual education might be accurately described as indoctrinates of a false curricular religion, who all too frequently see results that they believe must be true, even if they are not. The same sort of individuals who can publicly hail a 90+% failure rate as a 90+% success rate might in other subcultures regularly see images of the Virgin Mary in the bark of every fourth oak tree.
I attach three recent articles from the Boston Globe on the Framingham program, the first an evenhanded coverage of a debate there, the second a highly laudatory presentation clearly colored by the misrepresented test scores, and the third a more skeptical presentation of some of the actual results.