When the federal Bilingual Education Act was passed in 1968, the goal was to give assistance to schools that sought creative means to educate students who were not proficient in English. The expectations were high and, subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bilingual education must be provided.
There is evidence, however, that teaching students in their native language, instead of in English, is not working as well as had been hoped. A New York City Board of Education study found that bilingual students who take most of their classes in English generally do better than students in bilingual programs where little English is spoken. In Connecticut, a 1986 study found that only 6 percent of the 11,000 bilingual students enrolled the previous year graduated after they were considered to be proficient in English.
Judging from the results of these and other reports from throughout the country, too many bilingual students are learning skills in their native language without learning English. Some bilingual teachers themselves are not fluent in English. Critics complain that students have been referred to bilingual programs when they would be able to perform in mainstream classes.
There are also reports showing that older children don’t fare as well in bilingual classes and that the system is turning out adults who are unable to perform as well in workplaces or colleges despite a high school degree.
Twenty-five years after the bilingual law’s enactment, it’s time to review dispassionately what has worked and not worked and reassess the goal of bilingual education. Something is obviously wrong when the first major study of Connecticut’s bilingual program shows that even teachers were unsure of the objectives.
This is a volatile issue, but it must addressed for the sake of the students.