Fifth in an eight-part series. Next: Business slowly awakens to the next
America. John Micklethwait writes for the Economist magazine.
Today’s learner is tomorrow’s leader.” The motto of Public School
220, which nestles beside the Long Island Expressway in Queens, N.Y.,
would do nicely for most New Americans.
Sooner or later, everything seems to come down to education. But
many of the other notes pinned on the boards – sample: “Snowflakes
are different, and so are we” – hint at the challenges of trying to
teach students who between them speak 26 foreign languages at home.
Even more perhaps than the border, places like PS 220 represent
the front line in the immigration debate.
All the literature for parents is translated into Chinese, Spanish
and Russian. Around 40 percent of the school’s pupils come from
So many of them arrived with malnutrition and neurological
problems that the principal, Athena Galitsis, set up a special center
in the school to provide primary health care.
This makes the school sound a little grim; in fact, it is a
heartening demonstration that public education can work. Its polite,
cheerful pupils do well in tests, and morale among the teachers is
Most of PS 220’s virtues are simply those of good schools
anywhere. Classes are organized so that pupils cooperate; parents are
drawn into everything; and reading and writing in English is
encouraged with an almost evangelical enthusiasm (“Drop everything
and read something,” is another of Galitsis’ mottoes).
The school used to offer bilingual education in English and
Russian, until parents rejected it.
Like many other teachers, Galitsis is unenthusiastic about
bilingual education. English, she thinks, is the key to getting
ahead. According to the polls, so do most foreign-born parents.
New York is the next target for Ron Unz, a “Silicon Valley”
millionaire who was the guiding force behind California’s Proposition
227. This measure replaced bilingual education, which around half the
students with poor English were receiving, with crash courses in
Bilingual education, originally invented as a way to steer funds
to poor people in the Southwest, has always produced disappointing
results. It is now merely a sop to the teachers unions.
Since bilingual education was banned in California about a year
ago, test scores have risen. Even more tellingly, the students who
were put on the English crash course or into mainstream classes are
well ahead of those still stuck in bilingual ones (which a few
students have waivers to continue).
Bilingual education is only a small part of the problem, but it is
indicative of the raw deal immigrants are getting from America’s
They are usually stuck in the cities with the most bloated school
bureaucracies (half of New York’s budget goes to administration). In
many parts of Los Angeles, the White middle class has abandoned
And multiculturalist wheezes – such as social promotion, whereby
children are moved up a grade even if they have failed the exams –
have done immigrant children few favors.
One reform that could help is school vouchers, which would allow
parents to choose their children’s school. In one recent charitable
scheme, 168,000 poor New Yorkers applied for 2,500 places.
Many good teachers suspect that vouchers would amount to
privatization. But the evidence suggests that good public schools
have nothing to fear, and that poor people would benefit most.
Politicians have been little help. Democrats, including most
Latino leaders, are unwilling to offend the teachers unions.
Republicans have some bright ideas, but are often scared to use them.
Unz’s polls show that New York’s normally combative mayor, Rudy
Giuliani, could surge ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton if he backed a
proposition banning bilingual education, but he hasn’t.
Many right-wingers aim their fire at the main citadel of
multiculturalism, higher education.
In both Texas and California, voters have abolished affirmative-
action programs in universities. That may be a good thing in the long
term, but in the shorter term it has made life harder for Latinos at
a time when a college degree is a vital rung on the ladder of
As far as the redoubtable Galitsis is concerned, the earlier she
can start teaching children the better. The children who go to her
small kindergarten outperform those that do not, but she has no space
In preschool education, America still lags behind many other
countries with far fewer resources.
All in all, the barriers preventing today’s learners from becoming
tomorrow’s leaders still look worrying high. But immigrants have one
enormous advantage: most of them desperately want to learn.