English Should be Priority for New Bilingual Plans

Bilingual education has been on the ropes for the last few years,
but Education Secretary Richard Riley hopes to revive the embattled
program by creating 1,000 new programs around the country that will
teach Spanish to English-speakers as well as teaching English to
Spanish-speakers. This approach, called dual-immersion, has been
around for decades, but only recently has become a favorite among
bilingual-education enthusiasts looking for a way to save bilingual
education from an onslaught of reforms that threaten to eliminate the
program altogether.

In 1998, California voters overwhelmingly passed a Constitutional
amendment effectively ending state-mandated bilingual-education
programs in favor of English-immersion programs for limited-English-
proficient children. Similar measures may be on the ballot this year
in Arizona and Colorado if proponents can gather enough signatures,
and some state legislatures are considering modifications to
bilingual programs as well. So, what’s wrong with Secretary Riley’s
call to “treat language skills as the assets they are” by creating
two-way bilingual programs for non-Hispanics and Hispanics alike?

Absolutely nothing, so long as the goal is to teach Spanish to
students who already know English. Indeed, dual-immersion schools are
an excellent way to teach any foreign language. Montgomery County,
Maryland, had an excellent French immersion school for many years,
and parents vigorously vied to get their children admitted into the
prestigious magnet program.

The best immersion schools usually devote 70 to 90 percent of
their instructional time to the foreign language to be learned, at
least in the beginning, which is a great way for students who already
know English to learn a second language. But what about non-English-
speaking children? Should they spend 90 percent of their time
learning in Spanish, or even half their time, as many dual-immersion
programs recommend?

Proponents of dual-immersion programs claim they work as well or
better than traditional bilingual or all-English versions, such as
English-as-a-second-language or structured-English-immersion
programs. But a close look at the evidence suggests that the kids who
benefit most are the ones in least need of help.

Professor Christine Rossell of Boston University, who has studied
programs aimed at limited-English-proficient kids for nearly two
decades, notes in a recent analysis of dual-immersion programs:
“Hispanic students in well-regarded, two-way bilingual programs in
real school districts score only about half as well as white
students” in those programs. At River Glen Elementary, a two-way
bilingual school in San Jose, Calif., often touted as a model
program, Hispanic students scored about half as well on reading
tests. And in many dual-language schools, about one-third of the
Spanish-speaking students failed to learn enough English to be tested
at all. When these schools report impressive gains for dual-
immersion students, it’s because they’ve left non-English speakers
out of the equation.

Bilingual-education advocates have jumped on the dual-immersion
bandwagon because they hope to expand their constituency to middle-
class Anglo parents who want their children to learn a second
language. It’s a smart political tactic, especially since support for
Spanish-language programs seems to be declining among immigrant
parents who want their children to learn English more quickly. A poll
last year by the non-profit organization Public Agenda showed that 75
percent of immigrant parents want their children taught in English. A
similar poll taken by my organization, the Center for Equal
Opportunity, found only 17 percent of Hispanic parents want their
children to be taught to read and write first in Spanish.

Ironically, some of the strongest support for bilingual education
comes from middle-class Hispanics, many of whom don’t speak Spanish,
and regret their children don’t either. It’s these Hispanics who are
a natural constituency for dual-immersion classes, and could actually
benefit from them, just as non-Hispanics might.

But no one should be fooled into thinking dual-immersion programs
are the answer to helping the huge influx of mainly immigrant Spanish-
speakers into public schools in the Southwest and elsewhere. The 3
million students who already speak Spanish as their primary language
will become bilingual only by learning English. And the best way to
do that is through intensive English instruction by teachers well-
trained in teaching a second language. If Secretary Riley is serious
about helping these children, he should create several thousand new
model English-immersion programs around the country, not just a few
new dual-immersion programs to help students learn or improve their

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