Is 51 Larger Than 9 or Smaller Than 9?

Several weeks ago I was contacted by Stephanie Finucane, a reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune, who was beginning work on a follow-up story examining the impact of Proposition 227 in her portion of California’s underreported Central Coast.

Since I had not previously dealt with anyone from her newspaper, I gladly answered all her general questions on the initiative and its apparent results, sent her an information kit with additional background materials, and thought no more of it.

To my very pleasant surprise, soon afterward there appeared a quite detailed and thorough set of front-page stories in her publication, describing the rather impressive rise in Central Coast Latino academic performance following the 1998 passage of the measure, as indicated in the test scores now easily available on the official web site of the California Department of Education.

This difference was especially striking for younger limited-English students, obviously the subpopulation most impacted by bilingual education programs. For example, 51% of local limited- English second graders who were in English immersion were reading at or above grade level in 2001 compared with just 9% of their limited-English peers in bilingual programs.

These academic results seem rather remarkable, in both directions. Since the tests involved are the nationally-normed Stanford 9 exams, benchmarked on students who are overwhelmingly white, middle- class, and English-speaking, it is certainly heartening to find the children of (mostly) impoverished, Spanish-speaking Latino immigrants enrolled in English immersion programs equaling or even outperforming this national group.

By contrast, there really seems no easy way to put a pretty face on bilingual programs in which just 9% of these same students are reading at or above grade level.

But as has long been apparent, California’s determined advocates of bilingual education are never individuals to shy away from an important task, however challenging it might seem. Rather than take the easy route of grudgingly admitting that 51 is larger than 9, these committed individuals (correctly) point out that such numerical comparisons rely upon a whole host of implicit and perhaps questionable assumptions, notably the behavior of Abelian vs. non-Abelian groups, Cartesian set theory, and most obviously the determinacy of human knowledge, long since effectively refuted by the Incompleteness Theorem of Kurt Godel.

Thus, Lauri Burnham, one of the California’s top educational officials for limited-English programs, is quoted as being concerned that the public might “misuse” the data and draw the wrong conclusions, perhaps due to the common misconception that 51 is bigger than 9 rather than smaller. Fortunately, the one professor of education quoted avoids this calamity, pointing out that endless academic research has proven the educational superiority of bilingual education. Presumably such research begins by first demonstrating that 9 is far, far larger than 51 in the non-Riemannian manifold of eleven compactified dimensions that most physicists believe we actually all inhabit.

On a rather more positive note, near the end of last week, the California Board of Education formalized its complete surrender on the proposed new regulations that would have effectively nullified core provisions of Proposition 227.

At the first February hearing on the subject, my objections to these illegal regulations were completely ignored, and the Board voted almost unanimously to endorse violations of Proposition 227 throughout California, with long-time “English” stalwart Nancy Ichinaga being the sole dissenting vote. Then, as the state and national media began to focus on the nature of just what was being considered by this unelected Board, the pressure mounted, and perhaps backbones suddenly began to grow among the wealthy but cowardly political donors who constitute the bulk of its membership.

Soon, the Board’s Executive Director suddenly and unexpectedly resigned, and the Board began a headlong retreat back toward legality, with Thursday’s unanimous vote marking the complete reversal of the original action. These developments are accurately portrayed in the story below, which ran in the Sacramento Bee and various other state newspapers.

Finally, the broader national developments on the “English” issue are effectively presented in a piece that prominently ran last week in Investor’s Business Daily. As the article indicates, although the results of our California measure have clearly been overwhelmingly positive, and similar measures have or likely will pass wherever they reach the ballot, the list of remaining state possessing both significant bilingual programs and the initiative process is growing very short.

Put bluntly, America is now facing a most peculiar race, between the growth of sentiment among our leading politicians that 51 is indeed larger than 9—despite the views of endless professors of education to the contrary—and the declining reservoir of remaining states in which ordinary voters can tell their elected officials that they strongly (if perhaps ignorantly) believe that 51 exceeds 9 by a considerable amount.

The outcome of this race will be an important one, certainly for many millions of Latino schoolchildren around the country.

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