Politically incorrect

As reading-test scores improve, members of the Latino Caucus duck under their desks, and a state education official ducks questions

Illustration By David Wagner

Sacramento operates in a universe separate from much of the world, its lawmakers anguishing over whether to vote for a completely sanitized statement supporting American troops but not batting an eye at blowing several billion in our tax dollars this year by failing to make painful budget cuts.

The upside-down rules that keep the statehouse operating like a mental ward much of the time were painfully evident on March 25 when new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell called a press conference to release some of the first big education news of his administration and then turned out to be too politically correct to explain what his big news really meant. That, in turn, caused his big news to be buried deep inside newspapers—or not published at all.

I’m talking about the truly staggering statewide test scores released by O’Connell, which show Spanish-speaking children and other immigrants are learning to read, write and comprehend English at a sustained pace California educators say is unprecedented.

After two decades of downwardly spiraling achievement and increasing illiteracy rates among California’s Spanish-speaking students, 2003 is the second year of a new test showing big, historically unusual jumps in English fluency and comprehension. The so-called CELDT test comes on the heels of five years of vastly improving grades for immigrant kids on subject-matter tests given only in English, such as the Stanford 9.

This is rare good news from the public schools. To many, English literacy marks the single most important toehold Latinos must have in order to grow a strong middle class in California, and everybody agrees we desperately need that.

Sacramento reacted in typical fashion. The Latino Legislative Caucus suddenly went invisible, making no comments on the amazing statewide gains by 860,000 children whose first language is not English, 34 percent of whom, according to the CELDT test, are now A and B students, like any suburban child. Four of five Latino legislators I sought out for comment on the great scores of Latino schoolchildren never called back. La Opinion, the biggest Spanish-language newspaper in California, didn’t quote a single prideful Latino elected official dying to get in on the good news.

You’d have thought the superintendent of schools had just rolled a big fat stink bomb down the hall.

See, many in the Latino Legislative Caucus of California are still very upset that California voters approved Proposition 227, which largely banned the failed statewide “bilingual education” program that kept kids in Spanish for five years and left them too far behind in English for many ever to catch up.

Not a single Latino politician in California backed Proposition 227 because it required that children be taught using immersion English. When voters in 1998 approved Proposition 227, the hip, urban Latino politicians in Los Angeles predicted children would be so traumatized by English that they would cry their way through school and be so unable to understand that academic scores would plummet.

But the opposite occurred the year immersion English was launched, and the year after that, and the year after that. The kids loved it. Immersion English was coupled with an intensive return to phonics, which the bilingual-education crowd virulently opposed as another assault on Latino kids.

Test scores skyrocketed.

California’s Latino third-graders, once lavishly praised by teachers if they just managed to recite the English alphabet, now hungrily read school-related and other books and whatever else they can grab in English—a transformation I have witnessed in a dozen mutations.

In a world that makes sense, the adults would have come around by now.

But Sacramento doesn’t make sense.

A few days ago, state Senator John Vasconcellos, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, perfectly captured the utter disinterest from topmost Sacramento power brokers toward a phenomenon that serious educators around the nation see as a near-miraculous turnaround in California’s heavily Latino schools.

“I don’t have any particular feeling about what the test results show,” Vasconcellos told me, huffing derisively. “I care more about things more personal than test results—give me a break!”

And that’s why I listened, wincing with empathy at times, as the new superintendent of public instruction took the gutless way out on March 25 and failed to credit the law that forced schools to teach English for being a key reason kids are learning it. (I attended the press conference via teleconference.)

Yes, intensive work with teachers and raising the bar on standards in the classroom have been huge factors, as O’Connell pointed out. But if the schools had not been forced to teach in English, California’s Latino children probably would be taught intensive phonics and probably would show major gains in reading and writing—but in Spanish. And that is the simple truth.

It does not bode well for kids in California when an independently elected politician like O’Connell, swept into office by a huge margin of voters and not facing re-election again for another four years, chooses not to speak the plain truth when he’s got a big positive story to tell.

“O’Connell has lots of learning to do after a performance like that,” said one state standards expert in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Bilingual has been shown to be a complete failed cause, and the number of parents asking for the waiver in L.A. so their kids can be taught in Spanish is tiny now. But what is the state doing about districts where the bilingual true believers are still in charge?”

One Department of Education spokesman said O’Connell offered no opinion of immersion English because the department has not compared immersion English students with the kids still stuck in Spanish at the request of their parents. However, this spokesman told the gathered journalists, “we hope to extract that data.”

The vast Department of Education has not made these constantly requested comparisons in the five years of test-taking since immersion hit the classrooms?

Instead, O’Connell credited such things as the “hard work of teachers, para-educators, parents and students … and to our standards-based system.” But the truth is the teachers, assistants, parents and kids always tried like hell to succeed, and for 20 years, the failures mounted.

I don’t mean to unjustly target poor old O’Connell. I hear from many quarters that the former Southern California legislator is a good man. But it’s crucially important to know if we have a wimp in charge of education in California or not.

That’s because this year, I have learned from a number of sources, under the guise of budget-cutting, hardcore elements in Sacramento who oppose Latino kids soaking up all this English reading and writing ability hope to make a serious hit on immersion English.

“What you are going to see in Sacramento is a move away from testing because the tests show immersion English works too well—we’ve crunched the numbers on our own, and there’s simply no debate on it,” said Oceanside School District Superintendent Ken Noonan.

Noonan, a Mexican-American (despite his last name), helped launch the bilingual-education movement in California and is now an outspoken convert to immersion English. “The Latino Caucus does not want to lose bilingual education for good,” said Noonan. “But if these tests remain, showing how little good bilingual is doing, there may be a movement to eliminate it totally.”

Chief among those targeting immersion English, several sources tell me, are Marco Firebaugh, chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus; Jackie Goldberg, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee; several members of the Latino Caucus; and seething lawyers left over from bilingual education’s glory days who recently sued the state Board of Education at the urging of Goldberg and Firebaugh.

One source high up in education officialdom in Sacramento told me, “Yes, we are expecting big hits on testing. But we all have to be really, really careful what we say, and nobody wants their names attributed in talking with you on this issue because they will be personally targeted in an ugly, ugly way—and Marco Firebaugh is the biggest slammer of all. Firebaugh is the one to be feared. You must be prepared, if you go against Firebaugh or the Latino Caucus on immersion English, to be called a racist. To go up against them as an employee of the state, you have to be a Latino. We cannot have any white employees make any arguments for English immersion or against bilingual. We have to put our Latino employees out there.” (Firebaugh did not respond to my request for an interview.)

An education expert told me Firebaugh finally visited the Los Angeles Unified School District immersion program, where immigrant kids are soaring in school for the first time in the memory of the oldest teachers and are quickly closing in on suburban kids in achievements in reading and math. It’s truly amazing.

But, said this education expert, “Marco Firebaugh went to L.A. and saw the program working and said he hated it, and it’s crazy. Why does he hate it? Because it’s a crazy world, that’s why.”

Let me suggest another theory. We are witnessing the sort of entrenched petty jealousy that balloons into years of confrontation in Sacramento. Latino leaders badly missed the boat on English immersion, now so popular with Latino parents that in Santa Ana, voters recently recalled a bilingual-education fanatic on the school board.

Nancy Ichinaga, on the California Board of Education and a nationally renowned educator who used immersion English and intensive phonics called Opencourt to bring the troubled Inglewood grade schools up to national standards in academic achievement, sadly noted, “It makes you feel bad that the Latino politicians in Sacramento can’t be trusted to do what’s right for kids, and citizens are the ones who have to carry the load.”

It doesn’t make me feel bad, just furious. It’s time for Sacramento leaders to find their backbones and admit that if Proposition 227 hadn’t passed, we’d be churning out hundreds of thousands of children who could only read and write in Spanish, and the debate would still be about how to turn the train wreck around.