Last week during the legislative hearings surrounding our proposed Massachusetts “English” initiative, local bilingual activists did their utmost to debunk reports of the enormous success of California’s previous 1998 initiative.
The New York Times might have heralded California’s success in a national front-page lead story, seconded by dozens or even hundreds of other journalistic reports and editorials in California and national newspapers. The standardized test scores of over a million younger limited-English students might have nearly doubled in a three year period, with comparably unprecedented gains for Latino students.
But to die-hard inhabitants of the bilingual education universe, the fact that California has continued to classify the vast majority of these students as “limited English,” constitutes absolute proof of the educational failure of Proposition 227, regardless of how high their average test scores might rise.
Now, suddenly, front-page stories in the Contra Costa Times and the Orange County Register have made public a very different story. Apparently under California’s newly standardized test of English proficiency, hundreds of thousands of immigrant students—some 25% of the total—long classified as “not knowing English” are revealed to actually “know English.”
Perhaps these hundreds of thousands of newly reclassified students had always known English. Perhaps they had learned English since the passage of Proposition 227. Perhaps the new test is simply wrong, or perhaps the old ones were. Most likely, all of the above are true to some extent. No one knows.
Suppose a new DNA test suddenly revealed that some 25% of all of America’s current prison inmates were actually innocent of their crimes and should immediately be freed. Such a result would obviously raise the gravest doubts about our entire existing system of criminal justice, and that system would probably not survive such a momentous revelation. The educational analogy is a very close one.
For whatever reason, a simple wave of the magic wand of a new testing and classification methodology has miraculously “taught English” to hundreds of thousands of immigrant students at almost no effort or significant expense. Our most appropriate response is to begin a very close reconsideration of the entire educational framework of “English proficiency” upon which the colossal edifice of America’s system of bilingual education is founded.
The logical basis of the current system will have a difficult time surviving such scrutiny.
At present, students are typically classified as limited-English proficient—“not knowing English”- –if they are raised in an immigrant family (or perhaps even just have a Latino last name) and subsequently score slightly below average on standardized tests given in English, with the cut- off typically being around the 35th or 40th percentile. But since 35% of ALL students—native English speakers included—will always fall below the 35th percentile, this methodology for determining English proficiency is as laughably absurd as it is unfortunately ubiquitous.
Furthermore, school districts are typically provided extra money for every student classified as limited-English—and have their funding cut for every student who successfully “learns English.” In fact, under this bilingual education framework there have been estimates that some 80% of California’s black students should actually be classified as “not knowing English,” with their districts thereby gaining extra funding. This was the basis for the controversy over “ebonics,” and whether or not black students in America actually speak English.
Taken as a whole, our national system of immigrant education would be grotesquely funny if it were not also so utterly tragic. Certainly, the school administrators and the educational academics who guide them will have much to answer at the judgment bar of history.
But the underlying reason for this and our other seemingly endless series of curricular disasters— whole language, fuzzy math, self-esteem courses pushing aside academics—remains as obvious as it does politely unspoken. University faculty members have long recognized that—with some extremely notable exceptions—the field of education sadly tends to attract individuals of the dimmest mental wattage, whose jargon-filled and often ludicrous “research” outpourings would surely provoke rapid expulsion from a psychology department, let alone anything in the harder sciences of biology or physics.
Similarly, the relatively low status and low pay of the current public school teaching profession has recently led it to attract either a few dedicated idealists—who often tend to rapidly grow disillusioned and leave—or the lowest strata of college graduates, for whom the elite professional careers of law, medicine, or academics are completely unattainable. Such naturally gullible individuals constitute the vulnerable prey of those dim and faddish educational theorists who dominate the educational schools that credential them.
And that underlying system is the primary reason for decades of national educational policy that destroyed the educations and lives of so many millions of students, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. A sad story but a true one.
P.S. Since early February I have been heavily absorbed in the first major overhaul of our web site since its creation five years ago, including the consolidation of thousands of individual pages into a unified database architecture. A project that I had foolishly expected would take two weeks has taken two months instead, and also required much more of my own time and personal involvement than I had ever dreamed.
I must apologize for all the other important matters that have been long delayed by this laborious effort, now nearly completed.