Far Too Small a Sample Size

Late Wednesday night, I returned to the Bay Area on a midnight flight from two exhausting days in Denver.

Much of the time spent there was rather run-of-the- mill and typical, with an hour-long televised debate on our “English” initiative on the local PBS affiliate and additional live debates before an organization of Colorado business CEOs, the Denver School Board, the Editorial Board of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and at the private home of a former Colorado governor.

At the public forum, the hundred or more bilingual activists yelled, I smiled, and all was as it should be.

The following morning, I participated in yet another debate, this one held at Stanford University before an audience of education journalists and sponsored by the National Association of Education Writers, headquartered in Washington.

As this hectic schedule so indicated, Labor Day has passed, and we have now fully arrived in “campaign season.”

Having encountered virtually identical arguments by our opponents during some two hundred and fifty previous debates in California, Arizona, and elsewhere, the greatest surprise in these half- dozen debates was the lack of even any slight surprise. I could have probably recited the attacks on our initiative—which can easily be conjugated as ranging from the weak to the weaker to the weakest—before they were even made, and perhaps far more cogently, having personally had much more experience in this arena than the local bilingual advocates, or even their national counterparts.

At times, this amusing situation has led me to consider offering my services as a paid political advisor to these various statewide No campaigns, sincerely assisting their campaign staff in better framing their arguments and critiques in return for a fat consulting fee that I might either donate to charity, or perhaps more cruelly use to fund further “English” campaigns elsewhere.

In fact, far more interesting than these endless debates was a short visit I also took to a local Denver elementary school at the repeated urging of Eric Hubler, the education writer for the local Denver Post, who has occasionally expressed considerable skepticisms toward the arguments we make in our campaigns.

I had several times pointed out to him that spending just an hour or two with a handful of immigrant students was hardly likely to produce much scientifically valid information on the effectiveness of Colorado’s existing programs for some 70,000 English learners, and would provide neither objective data nor sufficient sample size. But since such a visit would obviously do no harm either, I readily consented, allowing him to pick the school and the classes to visit.

The results—despite the tiny sample size—were absolutely fascinating, and actually quite enlightening.

The first visit was to an English Language Acquisition class, supposedly intended for fourth grade students who had already made considerable progress in learning English. Although the students said that a little instruction was in Spanish, most was in English. I was glad to hear this since a solid one-quarter of the supposed “English learners” in the class seemed likely native English speakers, being children who were either black or blue-eyed blonds.

Seating myself at one of the tables with five Latino-looking girls, I spend twenty minutes or so chatting with them, gaining their confidence and learning some very interesting facts.

First, although I have endlessly repeated the official national statistics that over half of America’s limited-English students were born right here, and most of the rest arrived before first grade, empirical confirmation of such dry data is often heartening. Just as one might expect, three of the five girls were born in Denver, one came from Texas, and just one was Mexican-born, although all were of Mexican ancestry.

Second, although their parents generally spoke Spanish at home, most of them had at least one parent who spoke “pretty good” English.

The girl from Mexico and her friend from Texas seemed to speak flawless, even unaccented English, so I asked them when and how they had learned the language. To my considerable surprise, the former said she had learned English before starting school from her cousin, and the latter from her “auntie.” Still, both had been placed in “bilingual” programs once they enrolled in Denver schools.

By contrast, the girl sitting next to them had learned English in Denver’s public schools, starting in her Kindergarten class, which according to her had been all in Spanish. Sadly, schools seemed a little less educationally effective than cousins or aunties, and this Denver-born fourth- grader seemed struggling in English, frequently asking her Mexican-born friend to translate words and phrases for her and clearly much more comfortable in Spanish. Although she seemed quite smart and alert, she mentioned that her English- reading level had barely reached the first grade. Perhaps Denver administrators should urge their young immigrant students to stay home to be taught by their cousins and aunties rather than waste their time playing “hooky” by attending school.

Unfortunately, the next class I met—of “beginning” limited-English students—provided me a clear picture of why a Denver-born fourth grader would require her Mexican-born classmate to serve as an English translator.

Although we had been told that these fourth-graders had only just arrived in America, the Spanish- language questions asked by Rita Montero, sitting next to me, provided a somewhat different picture. Nearly all the five or six Latino children sitting together at our table had been in Denver for almost all of 2002, having arrived in January or February. Obviously, five or six months of presumed Denver schooling would not have been enough to make them completely fluent in English, but to my shock most of these perfectly normal students seemed to speak not a single word of our language. They reacted with absolutely blank stares to very simple questions like “What is your name?,” “How old are you?,” and “Do you like school?” When Rita asked them (in Spanish) to say any English words they knew, the silence was deafening. By contrast, they eager chattered away to themselves and to Rita in Spanish.

The sole exception to this utter lack of English was a little boy who did know quite a few words of our language despite having arrived from El Salvador just nine days earlier. Perhaps this means that Salvadoran schools teach considerably more English than those in Denver.

Certainly, these Latino fourth-graders who have failed to learn a single word of English after eight or nine months in Denver will obviously do so over the next year or two, perhaps from their cousins or aunties or parents or television shows if not by American public school teachers. By fifth grade, they may know a few words, by junior high they may be able to actually make themselves understood in spoken English, and probably by the ninth or tenth grade, they will proudly but slowly be reading “The Cat in the Hat” in the language of their new country. Most importantly, by the time they graduate from the Denver Unified School District, they will have reached the important pinnacle of comprehending complex multi-syllabic phrases such as “double whopper with cheese to go,” and be ready to embark on a long and illustrious professional career in our growing service sector industries.

Given this impressive track-record of educational achievement for the immigrant students under their authority, the seven elected members of the Denver School Board were obviously justified in yesterday voting unanimously to oppose our “English for the Children” initiative. Perhaps they should all celebrate by visiting the workplaces of some of their former students for lunch and proudly placing their orders in English…but speaking very slowly.


P.S. On a far happier note, my partner in yesterday’s Stanford University debate was Ken Noonan, the Mexican-American founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, whose willingness to follow the law after the passage of Proposition 227 rapidly doubled his immigrant student test scores, leading to his sudden public conversion to support for “English” and his endless subsequent vilification by bilingual advocates from coast to coast.

Just last month Noonan was named California Superintendent of the Year by his thousand-odd California colleagues, less a reflection of their sudden discernment than of their remarkable newfound political courage.

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