Proposition 227: Myth vs. Reality

The Present and Future of Bilingual Education: Separating Myth From Reality

Jill Kerper Mora

In June, 1998 California voters approved Proposition 227, a ballot initiative to curtail bilingual education in the public schools. A 61% majority of the electorate passed the initiative following a rancorous debate during the campaign that pitted bilingual education against a model of instruction labeled “structured English immersion” (SEI). The new law mandated that bilingual programs throughout the state be replaced with one year of intensive English instruction for students with limited English proficiency until they acquired “a good working knowledge of English” for placement in mainstream classrooms.

Passage of Proposition 227 reversed policies governing the education of California’s 1.4 million students who are second-language (L2) learners of English. California had enacted the most prescriptive bilingual education law in the nation, the 1974 Chacon-Mascone Bilingual Education Act. When this law expired in 1987, the California Department of Education continued enforcement of the provisions of the expired law according to the sunset provisions to meet federal civil rights requirements. In the absence of legislative action to either continue or dismantle bilingual education programs, school districts operated programs for language minority students until a state court ruling in March 1998 ended school districts’ obligations to provide bilingual education. Months later in the June primary election, voters approved Proposition 227. The new education code provisions went into effect at the beginning of the 1998-99 school year, following a federal district court’s denial of an injunction against its enforcement (Escobedo, 2000).

The purpose of this article is to examine the public policy implications of Proposition 227 for equal educational opportunities of language minority students. In this article, I analyze the California electorate’s composition and beliefs that led to approval of the ballot initiative restricting bilingual education. This analysis requires that we explore the myths surrounding bilingual education and how federal court rulings reflect an unexamined acceptance of many popular misperceptions about educational models and approaches for educating students who speak a language other than English. I present a paradigm for placing the participants in the public policy decision-making process along two continua according to their levels of information about the impact of the policy and their level of investment in the outcome of the decision. Through an analysis of the misperceptions and manipulation of public opinion regarding bilingual education, I argue that a ballot initiative is not a sound process for making decisions about complex and technical educational issues. I describe the research basis for effective practices in educating language minority students and how Proposition 227 contradicts these practices. The conclusion is that this misguided law is negatively affecting opportunities for a meaningful and effective education for language minority children.

A Paradigm for Sound Public Policy

The ballot initiative process in California places complex public policy decisions in the hands of the general electorate. Placing a law governing education policy circumvents legislative and administrative processes where conflicting interests in the outcomes of a policy have a more equal standing in the debate and decision-making process regarding a particular issue (Broder, 2000; Schrag, 1998). In a ballot initiative campaign, public opinion plays a major role in the way individual voters perceive the issue. The paradigm presented in Figure 1: Policy Making Paradigm, depicts four quadrants representing the range of public opinion along two continua. One variable in public opinion is the amount and quality of information on the matter to which individual voters  have access and can comprehend as a basis for decision making. A second factor is the level of investment or stake that a particular voter has in the eventual outcome of the vote. A high level of investment in the issue combined with high levels of valid and reliable information about the issue together, translate into a wise decision about the direction of public policy. Low levels of stake in the outcome of the decision combined with low levels of information about the proposed public policy are synonymous with poor quality of decision making. These two factors are illustrated to show the relative placement of the public from low to high along each continuum:

1)        Informed and invested (I-I)

2)        Informed but uninvested (I-U)

3)        Uninformed but invested (U-I)

4)        Uninformed and uninvested (U-U)

In the case of Proposition 227, the voters of California were presented with a decision regarding the best way to educate students whose primary language is not English in the public schools. Decisions regarding education policies are often value-laden and controversial. This was certainly the situation with Proposition 227, which was titled the “English for the Children Initiative” (California Secretary of State, 1998). The initiative contains a series of statements prefaced by the words,  “The People of California find and declare…” expressing the value of English as “the leading world language” for economic opportunity, its necessity for immigrants’ participation in the “American Dream.”  Then the law proceeds to draw several unwarranted conclusions about education in California. The initiative links high drop-out rates and low English literacy levels among immigrant children to a “costly experimental language programs” that have failed to provide them a good education. The initiative further declares that young immigrant children can rapidly and easily acquire English “if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age.” In other words, the practice of providing instruction in their native language is declared, as a matter of law, to be the cause of the educational ills of the entire population of California students who fit the description “immigrant students.” The educational program that is outlined in the new portion of the education code is therefore mandated as the solution.

The actual language of Proposition 227 embodies the dominants myths that were promulgated by its proponents in the primary campaign. The mandated program calls for the segregation of LEP students for instruction during a temporary transition period “not normally intended to exceed one year.” Students are grouped by English language proficiency levels, with schools “permitted” to mix students across ages, grade levels and native languages. According to language of the initiative, students are required to remain in these classes until they “have acquired a good working knowledge of English.” The plan does not include criteria for judging when the students have acquired sufficient English to be transferred into the “English language mainstream classrooms” with their fluent English-speaking peers.

The range of public opinion surrounding the validity of the philosophical and pedagogical assumptions embedded in Proposition 227 fell along the two continua described in the Policy Making Paradigm. Groups representing each of the four quadrants named above participated to varying degrees in the vote on the amendments to California’s education code.

Informed and invested (I-I)

These voters include bilingual educators, university professors of education, researchers, school administrators, and language minority parents with children in bilingual programs or who receive special language services in the public schools. These voters understand how bilingual education works and are capable of judging the factors that determine sound versus unsound implementation of different theoretical frameworks and program models for schooling language minority students (August & Hakuta, 1997).  The I-I group also includes members of ethnic minorities who have a high stake in the modes of integration and acculturation of their children through the public schools (McGroaty, 1997; Macedo & Bartolomé, 1999; Portes, 1995). These voters have a critical understanding of the complex interrelationship of sociocultural factors shaping the educational context in which language minority students, as a subordinated social and economic group, are educated in public schools.

Informed but uninvested (I-U)

This group is comprised of voters are informed about the issue of bilingual education through their own experiences or education but do not believe they have a vested interest in the outcomes of any particular program model or public policy for educating language minority students. During the Proposition 227 campaign, citizens in this group included some legislators, political leaders who spoke out in opposition to the measure. Many organizations’ memberships that included persons who were directly affected by the restrictions on bilingual education and others who were not. The California Teachers Association (CTA) was among 23 organizations and association that took a position opposed to Proposition 227 (Tinson, 1998).  Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor of California opposed the initiative that appeared on the 1998 June primary election ballot before the gubernatorial elections in November (Los Angeles Times/CNN, 1998).

Uninformed but invested (U-I)

The uninformed but invested group of voters on Proposition 227 included many teachers and administrators whose stake in the outcome of the vote was high, but who were not well informed about the laws full implications for the performance of their duties. Many in this group voted based on the belief that, in fact, the intensive English program proposed in Proposition 227 would bring about improvements in educating language minority students. Some teachers also supported the initiative based on a perceived threat to their professional lives and antagonism toward the growing power and influence of bilingual teachers (Salisbury, 1997).

Bilingual educators also raised concerns that the elimination of bilingual education programs would necessarily entail the elimination of bilingual advisory committees established under the California education code regulations. These committees provide a legitimate forum for parents of language minority students to express support and concerns about program efficacy and implementation. The fate of these legally-mandated advisory groups under Proposition 227 is not specified, raising concerns that they would be eliminated and the voice of language minority parents silenced (Hernández, 1997). Additionally, educators were unable to foresee the impact of the “parental exception waiver” requirements in Proposition 227.

Uninformed and uninvested (U-U)

This group of voters makes up the majority of the California electorate who, by virtue of the initiative process, were to decide the fate of bilingual education and mandate an alternative program for educating language minority students. This group tends to vote based on personal values and beliefs in the symbolism of issue, rather than on informed opinion guided by a personal or professional stake in the outcome of the policy decision.

Majority/Minority Politics

The English-only ideology appears to have struck a chord with the portion of the California electorate concerned with education reform and anxious about the impact of growing numbers of immigrant students in the public schools. Bartolomé and Macedo (1997) stated that leaders of xenophobic and racist political campaigns are often part of an orchestrated effort by segments of society to wage war on poor people and minorities by virtue of their race, ethnicity, language, and class. The ideologies of racism are becoming more legitimized and codified into political rhetoric that assuages the fears of the White working and middle class as they lose ground to upwardly mobile minorities. This conflict also leads to competition for status, power, and employment opportunities between minority educators and the established teaching force, which is predominantly white and middle-class within the governance structure of public education.

Moran (1995) characterized the battle over bilingual education as a status conflict caused by the participants’ preoccupation with the respect and deference accorded to their way of live, culture, customs and values. When communities rationalize extreme measures because they are committed to an ideology to the point of ignoring the true impact of their actions, they may be willing to abrogate democratic values of fairness and justice in order to impose language domination. Donahue (1995) points out that the English-only movement has successfully inflamed public passions along the lines of long-standing ethnic antagonisms to keep the citizenry heated up to a boiling hostility, and therefore at a stage of high vulnerability and susceptibility to the appeal of extreme ideologies.

The condition of majority/minority politics in California immediately preceding the vote on Proposition 227 was highly volatile and emotional. Conservatives had successfully campaigned for passage of two other initiatives with anti-immigrant and anti-minority overtones: Proposition 187 in 1994, which prohibited state agencies from providing education and health services to illegal immigrants and their children; and Proposition 209 in 1996, which ended affirmative action in state funded institutions. All of these ballot initiatives sought to curtail minorities’ access to publicly-funded services.

The ethnic and racial composition of the California electorate is important in understanding the outcome of the votes on these controversial initiatives that disproportionately affected ethnic minority communities and individuals. Seventy-two percent of the California electorate is White, and 28% ethnic minority, 16% is Latino, and Blacks and Asians each make up 6% of the total. However, among Latinos, only 39% are eligible and registered to vote (Love, 2000). The vote on Proposition 227 reflected the Latino community’s rejection of the initiative by a two-to-one margin (Los Angeles Times/CNN, 1998). However, Latino voters were not able to overcome the superior voting power of the predominantly white conservative electorate.

Efficacy of the Ballot Initiative Process

Several contemporary authors (Broder, 2000, Guinier, 1994; Torres, 1998) have discussed the inherent dangers of the initiative process for the rights of minority populations, especially in times of dramatic demographic changes and economic disparity among ethnic groups in the greater society. In her treatise on the condition of minority voters within a racially mixed society with a politically and numerical dominant ethnic majority, Guinier (1994) gives a portent of the dangers posed by the popular initiative process.

“The history of struggle against tyrannical majorities enlightens us to the dangers of winner-take-all collective decision making. Majority rule, which presents an efficient opportunity for determining the public good, suffers when it is not constrained by the need to bargain with minority interests. When majorities are fixed, the minority lacks any mechanism for holding the majority to account or even to listen. Nor does such majority rule promote deliberation or consensus. The permanent majority simple has its way without reaching out to or convincing anyone else.” (p. 9)

The paradigm for sound policy making presupposes that the majority of participants in a policy decision will be both informed about, and invested in, the issue. (See Figure 2). However, in the case of Proposition 227, the majority of voters were both uninformed, or misinformed, and had no real stake in the outcome of the law since those immediately affected were educators and language minority students families.(See Figure 3). Donahue (1995:115) identified this phenomenon as “a suspicious thrust toward disinformation.” The majority of voters remained unconvinced that eliminating primary language instruction would have a negative impact on language minority students and believed that English immersion models had already been proven successful in some schools. Others simply believed that the Proposition 227 represented “the will of the people” and that educators should simply set aside their beliefs in implementing the new mandate districts (Jacobs, 1998, June 4). These attitudes reflected a naivete about the complexities of language minority education and the dangers of coercive homogeneous models for educating culturally and linguistically diverse populations designed to promote exclusion rather than inclusion in decision-making processes (Torres, 1998).

The Electorate Expresses Its “Policy Preference”

Broder (2000) points out the new role that has been created for the federal and state courts through the growing use of ballot initiatives for making law. Courts are placed in jeopardy by having to rule successful initiatives unconstitutional. The courts therefore are cast into a position of having the “final vote” on any popular initiative. The prospect of the cultural ideology of the English-only movement being translated into pedagogy and educational policy has sent shock-waves through the education community. Bilingual educators have suggested that what is ultimately at issue with Proposition 227 is the interpretation of federal laws that guaranteed the rights of language minority children to equal educational opportunities under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The changes made in the California education code by Proposition 227 and the program for educating language minority students it mandates challenge the interpretation of specific language of civil rights law: What is meant by a legal right to a “meaningful and effective” education?

One day after Proposition 227 was approved by voter, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Multicultural Training and Advocacy, Incorporated (META) and several other civil rights groups immediately filed a legal brief requesting a preliminary injunction against enforcement its enforcement (Escobedo, 2000). The petition condemned the program mandated under the new law for its “cookie-cutter,” assembly-line educational vision” of education for language minority students  (META, 1998: 334). The legal arguments against implementation of the statute denounced requirements for an educational program were based on public opinion and popular vote rather than on the expertise of educators in local schools district and state agencies. The federal court denied the request for an injunction on July 15, 1998.

In the ruling that allowed implementation of the program for educating language minority students to go forward, Judge Legge treated the educational issues inherent in Proposition 227 as if the case posed a choice between two equally sound plans for educating language minorities competing with one another for public support. Relying on the 1981 Castañeda v. Pickard decision, the court outlined two educational theories for educating language minority students. Simultaneous learning of English and academic content, as in bilingual education, was pitted against a “sequential” model of language and content learning, where students first learn English and then are provided remedial instruction to “recoup any deficits” that may occur in their academic learning. The court declared simply that California’s voters had expressed their “policy preference” and that since federal law did not require bilingual education, the states were not prohibited from denying it. Proposition 227 went into effect for the beginning of all school terms 60 days after its passage.

Challenging Myths About Bilingual Education

It is important to describe and challenge myths about bilingual education based on the body of research findings in effective schooling practices for language minority students (August & Hakuta, 1997). Following is an analysis of the misconceptions about bilingual education that have been promulgated by proponents of English-only instruction and supported by journalists and politicians who either do not know or willingly dismiss the research findings that contradict popular opinion.

The Interim Sacrifice Myth

A myth about bilingual education that is embedded in the program design mandated by Proposition 227 is the “interim sacrifice” myth. This term refers to the language of federal court decision in Castañeda v. Pickard that declare that an “interim sacrifice of learning” in literacy and academic content while language minority students learn English is permissible under the law. This sacrifice in academic learning is allowed as long as schools provide services to help them recoup any deficits that may occur within a reasonable amount of time (Escobedo, 2000). The belief that language minority students can succeed academically by first being placed in intensive English classes with a focus on rapid language acquisition and then transfer successfully into mainstream classrooms with sufficient proficiency in English is not supported by research findings. Therefore, the courts’ failure to define a reasonable time period for learning English and to require school districts to clearly define a plan for recouping academic deficits constitute a possible violation of students’ rights to equitable and effective school programs.

Hakuta, Butler & Witt (2000) conducted a study of how long it takes English language learners to reach full proficiency in four school districts, all considered to be successful in educating L2 learners. Two of the school districts included in the San Francisco Bay Area in northern California and two in Toronto, Canada. Students were enrolled in both bilingual education programs and English immersion programs, allowing for comparison of results across programs. The study concludes that it takes from two to four years for students to acquire basic interpersonal communication skills in English. However, acquisition of academic English sufficient to succeed at a level equivalent to native speakers of English requires from four to seven years. The study calls Proposition 227’s one-year English immersion mandate “wildly unrealistic.” Instead, the researchers call for policies that set aside the entire spectrum of the elementary grades as the realistic range in which English acquisition is accomplished. Furthermore, the study found no significant differences in the rate of English acquisition between students in bilingual programs and English immersion programs.

These research findings point out the dilemma involved in the “simultaneous versus sequential” models for educating L2 learners of English. In a program that focuses on language learning in the early grades, the emphasis on learning academic content is minimized or delayed while students gain the requisite proficiency in English. Consequently, when students are mainstreamed they may not have been exposed to or have acquired the grade level content covered by their native English-speaking peers. Ramírez et al (1991) found that only 21% of children in an all-English “immersion” program were reclassified as English proficient based on language assessment and standardized test scores in reading after two years, and only 38% after three years. Alternatively, students entry into classes where the regular school curriculum is taught may be delayed until they acquire sufficient English to keep up with the pace of instruction delivered entirely in English. This delay may be in the form of continuation in structured English immersion classrooms, or through in-grade retention.

In 1998, the California legislature passed a law, AB 1626 “Pupil Promotion and Retention” requiring that students who cannot perform on grade level be retained based on their performance either on standardized tests of reading and academic content or on the basis of students’ grades and academic achievement. Many bilingual educators and advocates for language minorities have expressed concerns about the impact of this policy and large-scale student retention on this vulnerable population. The effects of an inadequate academic foundation for children are cumulative, with the real consequences only becoming apparent as students move through the public school system hampered by their lack of literacy skills and content-area knowledge stemming back to the early grades. Students who fail one grade or more are more likely to drop out or be underachievers because they become academically “disengaged” from their own education (Rumberger & Larson, 1998). Once students experience failure, it is difficult to undo the negative effects later on in school. The possibilities of lingering effects of an ineffective program in the early years of schools are increased by the fact that the statute does not provide a long-term plan for recouping academic deficits through appropriate programs. Furthermore, McCollum, Cortez, Maroney, & Montes (1999) of the Intercultural Development Research Association found that 50% of students who are retained do no better the second time at a grade level, while 25% actually do worse. Only 25% of students demonstrate improved academic performance following retention.

Another troubling aspect of the “interim sacrifice” myth is the lack of coherence and ineffectiveness of remedial instructional programs as currently implemented in many school districts. According to McCollem, et al (1999), most remedial programs are based on the theory that curricula should be presented in a linear fashion. This model results in giving remedial students “a larger dose of what failed to work the first time” (p. 8). There is also a disturbing tendency to place students in remedial tracks that become permanent. Minority students in particular may perceive retention as a punishment for being atypical rather than for lack of effort. The risks of a negative reaction to retention is certainly the case where any lag in developing English proficiency, or even normal rates of growth when unrealistic standards and expectations are in place, is the causal factor in a decision to retain students.

Following passage of Proposition 227, there has been some recognition of the problems inherent in the one-year intensive English mandate. In a report commissioned by the governor, the California Research Bureau (De Cos, 1999:38) states the following:

“We need to be practical about mainstreaming English language learners in the shortest amount of time after they have acquired the necessary proficiency in English and recaptured any academic deficits. For some English language learners, mainstreaming may occur after approximately one year of sheltered/structured English immersion instruction expires, but for others, it may take a longer period of time. There is a risk that if mainstreaming is prolonged for some English language learners who need more time to acquire a necessary level of English language proficiency to succeed in mainstream classes, they may never “catch up” with academic subjects.”

The California Research Bureau report recommends a “transition plan” for supporting L2 learners who have been mainstreamed to ensure their academic and social integration into regular curriculum classrooms. Noticeably, however, the report fails to address the benefits the value of transitional bilingual education programs in supporting these same goals. Greene (1998) surveyed eleven studies of bilingual education as compared with other approaches, including English immersion that met strict criteria for inclusion in the analysis. He found that bilingual education had a positive effect, making up about 20 percent of the average achievement gap between minority and non-minority students (.21 standard deviation). Greene’s conclusions are parallel to other recognized studies (Ramírez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991; Thomas & Collier, 1997) that document the beneficial effects of well-implemented bilingual programs on language minority students’ academic achievement.

The Latino Dropout Rate Myth

The preamble to Proposition 227 clearly links the high dropout rates among immigrant students to their lack of English proficiency, and by implication to programs that fail to teach them English. Undeniably, English language proficiency is a factor in many limited English proficient students’ decision to drop out of school. In a comprehensive study (Rumberger & Larson, 1998) of dropout patterns among Latino students, language proficiency accounted for 30% of the statistical variance in analysis of the data. A number of other background factors have been identified as predictors of dropping out, such as socioeconomic status, length of residence in the United States, family factors such as educational level and two-parent family structures, and a print-rich environment. Krashen (1999) concluded that, in fact, these background factors account for much if not all of the difference in dropout rates among different ethnic groups.

Attributing high dropout rates among Latinos to lack of English proficiency is fallacious. Only 49% of Latino students are classified as limited English proficient; 51% are monolingual speakers of English (Attinassi, 1998). Consequently, language proficiency cannot be deemed a factor in their patterns of dropping out of school. Furthermore, the California Department of Education language census data indicates that before passage of Proposition 227 in 1997-98, only 30% of L2 learners were in bilingual education programs. At most, only 15% of the Latino school-aged population was enrolled in a bilingual program. Additionally, the average length of enrollment in a bilingual program is three years out of a 12 year school career. Therefore, we must conclude that bilingual instruction accounts for a very small percentage (approximately 4%) of the total schooling experience of Latino students as a whole population.

Several studies of students in well-implemented bilingual programs support the  conclusion that attention to both linguistic and cultural factors in learning among language minority students reduces the risks of dropping out and improves academic achievement (Curiel, Rosenthal & Richek, 1986: Neumann , 1996; Pang, Rivera & Mora, 1999; Rumbaut, 1995). Based on their comparisons of factors of academic engagement, study skills, social support structures and stable school enrollment, Rumberger and Larson (1998) concluded the following:

The findings suggest that achieving proficiency in English is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Latino students to  succeed in American school…. [F]or schools to be successful in assimilating language minority students, they must do much more than simply teach English. They must also attend to and strengthen cultural awareness and identity so that language minority students become bicultural as well as bilingual (p. 86-87).

Retention is also a factor in the high dropout rates among Latino students, a factor which is likely to be aggravated by Proposition 227. According to the Council of the Great City Schools (1998), twenty-seven percent (27%) of English language learners in the average high school were assigned to grade levels that were at least two years lower than age/grade norms, compared with 11% of all students. Research findings (Rumberger & Larson, 1997) suggest that these students are at an 80% greater risk of dropping out of school. Rather than a reduction in the dropout rates among Latino students and other language minorities, Proposition 227 promises only increased school failure for the higher numbers of students who are receiving inadequate support for long-term academic success and meaningful participation in school.

The “Fast-Track Assimilation” Myth

Another of the myths embedded in the language of Proposition 227 and its policies is that rapid acquisition of English provides language minority students a “fast-track” to assimilation into the cultural mainstream of American society. This rapid assimilation is based on the belief that students were segregated in bilingual classrooms, thereby separating them from their native English-speaking peers. The reasoning is that his pattern of segregation during their enrollment in bilingual programs slowed students’ progress in English and denied them access to fluent English speaking Anglo students (Porter, 1999/2000). This argument against bilingual education is predicated on the assumption that the most common scenario for limited English proficient students is where their ethnic group is a minority within schools that are predominantly Anglo-American. Therefore, rapid integration of students into mainstream classes would provide them access to desegregated classroom settings. The supposed benefit of English immersion in achieving desegregation does not stand the test of reality. Orfield, Buchmeier, James and Eitle (1997) found that in 1994-95 74% of Latinos in the U.S. were enrolled in schools that were 50-100% minority while 34.8% were enrolled in schools with 90-100% minority enrollment. We must conclude that the promises of rapid integration with native-English speaking populations through English-only instruction are an illusion for 35% of Latino students and a vague promise for the vast majority.

Language minority students also face disproportionate economic stress and poverty that affect their opportunities for academic success in de facto segregated schools. Orfield et al (1997) found that among segregated white schools only 5% face conditions of concentrated poverty, while 80% of the segregated black and Latino schools do. More than 40% of English language learners, compared with 13% of all students, attend high-poverty schools where at least 75% of the students are eligible for free or reduced school lunch (Council of the Great City Schools, 1998). Hakuta et al (2000) indicated that slower rates of acquisition of academic English were associated with higher rates of poverty in the schools attended by language minority students, both in the United States and Canada. Placement in a bilingual education program, however, did not result in any significant differences in the rate of English language acquisition and academic growth among students.

The myth of rapid assimilation through English language learning has recently been challenged. Portes (1995) describes paradoxical changes in patterns of integration among ethnic minority youth, which he describes as “segmented assimilation.” He associates these patterns with skin color, location and the presence or absence of a “mobility ladder”  (p. 73). One pattern is successful integration into the white middle class and upward economic and social mobility. Another pattern is a path leading to permanent poverty and assimilation into the underclass. However, a third and emerging pattern of assimilation is achieved through the deliberate preservation of the immigrant community’s economic, social and cultural solidarity. To gain entry into the American middle-class, immigrant youth must be able to attain sufficient academic preparation and opportunities for well-paid careers that often require a college education. Portes concludes that many nonwhite immigrants may not have the opportunity to gain access to middle-class white society, no matter how acculturated they become.

Changing patterns of assimilation and language maintenance have been identified where there are large immigrant populations and high levels of migration. Guerra (1998) describes immigrant communities that maintain their native language and culture through travel and contact with their homeland as “transnational” communities. These groups develop bilingualism and forge a new bicultural identity, amalgamating cultural traditions with new ways of life through contact with the dominant culture.

Recognition of linguistic rights in education for Latino groups is a vital aspect of  “cultural democracy.” Mexican-American educators Ramírez and Castañeda (1974) coined this term to describe individuals’ rights to maintain a bicultural identity as a survival strategy for people of color in response to living with the tensions of conflicting cultural values and subordination. There are a growing number of transnational communities in California, formed mostly by people of Mexican or Central American descent who maintain familial and economic ties with their homelands. There is very little incentive for these populations to supplant their native language with English to satisfy an abstract norm of Americanization. Instead, these populations value bilingualism and seek to maintain their ability to speak Spanish.

Many questions remain as to the extent to which these groups are oppressed through policies based on an educational model that treats their native language as an obstacle to achievement rather than an asset to support and enhance their learning opportunities (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995). Valdés (1998) claimed that language issues have become prominent, not because bilingualism is a threat to national unity, but because language education is an apparently neutral issue around which individuals with anti-immigrant sentiments and political agendas can mobilize their forces. On an individual basis, monolinguals who are well intentioned are often baffled when assumptions underlying policies that discriminate against bilinguals are challenged. These challenges require individuals who have no experience with different languages and cultures to view a struggle from the perspective of people who are totally unlike themselves. Ignorance by both bilinguals and monolinguals about how languages are acquired and what is possible when individuals use their languages in different settings leads to policy making that is fundamentally unfair to bilinguals.

The Standardized Test Scores Myth

A final arena of public opinion regarding bilingual education and the impact of Proposition 227 surrounds the scores of limited English proficient on the state-mandated standardized tests in California, the Stanford Version 9 (SAT-9). This standardized test was administered to all public school students in grades two through eleven for the first time at the end of the 1997-98 academic year (AY) and again for AY 1998-99. Test scores for school districts and schools were made public on the California Department of Education STAR website. The test data were further disaggregated according to students’ English language proficiency classification. For purposes of this analysis, we focus on reading scores. Standardized test scores in this academic area were used as one of the criteria for reclassification of limited English proficient students and for their exit from bilingual programs or from special language and academic support services. These scores are also used for decisions regarding student retention or promotion.

For the overall school population, the SAT-9 test scores showed small increases in national percentile rankings (NPR) in reading, with the greatest increase in second grade of four NPR. The increase of four points was true for both native speakers of English and students with limited English proficiency. Many educational researchers and media analyses (McQuilllan, 2000, Smith & Groves, 1999) pointed out that gains were statistically insignificant, with reading scores rising an average of 1.8 NPR for L2 learners and 1.9 NPR overall. In spite of these lackluster statistics, the proponents of Proposition 227 declared vindication of the new law. Claims of the success of Proposition 227 were based on percentages of gain in scores between AY 1997-98 and AY 1998-99, an arithmetic calculation that exaggerated small increases in NPR for lower scoring groups (Geyer, 1999, August 25).

The most egregious misuse of SAT-9 data was by the San Jose Mercury News that published a “study” (Bazeley, 1999, December 16) allegedly comparing the performance of students in bilingual programs against students in English immersion. Bazeley reported that test scores for the 12% of L2 learners enrolled in bilingual programs based on waivers were lower than L2 students in English immersion and mainstream programs. A follow-up editorial (Jacobs, 1999, December 30) condemned bilingual educators for not cheering the success of English immersion based on the comparison report. The comparisons were based on questionable criteria that, in reality, did not reflect the performance of students in different programs, but were instead, comparisons of the test scores of different schools. A careful reading of the article about the study revealed that the newspaper staff had designated schools as “bilingual schools” if there was a bilingual waiver classroom at the school or “English immersion schools” if there were none. The San Jose Mercury News did not release the data showing which schools were classified as “bilingual school” or “English immersion schools” with their corresponding test scores to the public.

The mythology created by the media regarding the results of Proposition 227 fails on many fronts. First, only 18% of the language minority student population was removed from bilingual programs in the first year of implementation of the English immersion mandate (California Department of Education, 1999). Consequently, increases in SAT-9 scores for the entire L2 learner population are unlikely to be attributable to the new law, especially since an equivalent rate of gain was evidenced for all students statewide. Second, comparisons of programs based on their presence or absence at a particular school are invalid. Schools that chose to grant waivers to continue bilingual education are more likely to have been poverty area schools with high concentrations of language minority students (McCollum et al, 2000). These demographic variables confound any interpretation of differences in scores between schools. Third, if examined carefully, the SAT-9 score increases in reading actually confirm what other research has found. If language minority students continue to gain at the same rate as exhibited between AY 1997-98 and AY 1998-99, it will take them from five to seven years of schooling to catch up academically with their native English speaking peers. Meanwhile, they are at considerable risk of incurring irreversible academic deficits that cannot be remedied through intensive compensatory instruction or in-grade retention.


The popular vote approving Proposition 227 has increased coercive rather than cooperative relations in educating language minority students between the public sector, regulatory bodies, and educators. Public policy making by means of political processes that limit the legitimate participation and exclude the interests of minority groups is potentially destabilizing in a culturally and linguistically diverse democratic society. The ballot initiative process for making decisions regarding complex and emotional issues about schooling for language minority students is fraught with dangers to civil rights protections for an expanding first- and second-generation immigrant population. We must carefully examine and challenge the ideological basis of public opinion is based in order to formulate sound policies to further society’s noblest goals. The results of flawed instruments for constructing educational policy must be subjected to public scrutiny as we seek to align policy-making processes and decisions with reliable and valid research findings and practical experiences. As new policy regarding the education of language minority students becomes institutionalized, our obligation is to continue to challenge and question policies that divert us from achieving educational equity for all our children.




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