Data Are In: Bilingual Classes Fail

To the Editor:

Abigail Trillin (Op-Ed, May 19) suggests that convening a blue-ribbon panel to examine the merits of bilingual education would surely unearth great evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, of its success. But a 1997 report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences was the product of such a panel.

It concluded that “we do not yet know whether there will be long-term advantages or disadvantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language.” Last year only 6 percent of California’s Limited English Proficient students enrolled in bilingual programs had learned enough English to graduate into regular classrooms.

It does not take a blue-ribbon panel to suggest that this is a signal that we should think of moving on to something better.


Program Director

Alexis de Tocqueville Institution

Arlington, Va., May 21, 1998


To the Editor:

Abigail Trillin (Op-Ed, May 19) apparently believes that linguistic pedagogy is so advanced that the cultural context of the learning experience is irrelevant.
This is na?ve.

My father grew up in a non-English-speaking household, one in which Croatian and German were used exclusively.

He walked through the kindergarten door of his Milwaukee public school not speaking the language of his parents’ adopted country, as did most of his Polish, Czech and Slovenian-speaking classmates. By the end of first grade he had begun to read and write in English. How was this possible?

It was possible because of the high commitment of these early 20th-century European immigrants to their new homeland.

Any language program, bilingual or not, that does not engender this commitment will fail.


New York, May 20, 1998


To the Editor:

Abigail Trillin’s May 19 Op-Ed article denigrating supporters of California’s Proposition 227 cites research findings that students in “well-designed bilingual programs scored higher on tests of English reading than such students educated in English-only programs.”

What does the research show about students educated in typical bilingual programs? Is it possible that typical English-only programs are serving students better than typical bilingual programs? If so, supporters of 227 are perhaps being pragmatic in realizing that if “the very best programs”
are not universally financed or available, they must settle for the best option that is available.

As a doctoral student in educational policy, I am fast learning that policy ideals are rarely practical on the mass scale at which public schools operate.


New York, May 19, 1998


To the Editor:

Re “Policy by Anecdote” (Op-Ed, May 19):

I teach English as a Second Language to Spanish-speaking elementary and middle-school students in central New Jersey. California’s Proposition 227 limits E.S.L. instruction to one year. But learning a language sufficiently to succeed academically takes more than a year.

Furthermore, students who are literate in their native language have an easier time learning English than the ones who are not. Therefore, encouraging proficiency in students’ native language makes sense. My students use bilingual books and software. Their first language is respected and incorporated in the learning process.


Princeton, N.J., May 19, 1998


To the Editor:

While Abigail Trillin (Op-Ed, May 20) is correct to say that the debate about bilingual education is political, she unwittingly demonstrates why it is so controversial.

The term itself refers to too many different kinds of programs. And Ms.
Trillin’s call for a blue-ribbon panel to make recommendations based on recent research ignores that many people are fed up with experts, educators,
lawyers and the misuse of limited public resources.

Not to mention the serious limitations of much educational and social science research. Ultimately, this is indeed a political decision, and in a democracy quite rightly so.

If the public is wrong, that is in part due to the failure of the experts to convince us.


Urbana, Ill., May 20, 1998


To the Editor:

Abigail Trillin (Op-Ed, May 19) believes that when making the argument for bilingual education, she should not “substitute anecdote for fact.”
Yet some anecdotes elucidate the facts of bilingual education.

According to an Associated Press story this month, Fernando Vega “was happy to arrange bilingual education classes as a member of the Redwood City school board 30 years ago.” But he was horrified when his grandson,
who speaks fluent English, was almost enrolled in the bilingual program.

In order to increase their financing, many California schools are trying to raise enrollments in bilingual programs by putting native English speakers into the program.

Thus, anecdotes play an important role in the debate.


Milwaukee, May 19, 1998

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