‘We must encourage language-minority parents to speak the first language at home, not to speak English. . . . The worst advice you can give to parents is to speak only English at home.” That’s the recommendation bilingual education proponent Virginia Collier of George Mason University made recently to teachers at an education conference.
So why are bilingual education advocates so eager to dissuade immigrant parents from speaking English to their kids? It has a lot more to do with protecting their jobs than in doing what’s best for the 2.4 million school- age children who can’t speak English, nearly-three-quarters of whom are Hispanic.
For nearly 30 years, both federal and state education policies have encouraged school districts to teach non-English speaking children in their native language. Hispanic children in particular have been singled out for native language instruction, often being placed in special classes where most of their lessons are taught in Spanish. Despite decades of research, however, there is little evidence that this approach helps Hispanic youngsters either to learn English or to keep up with their English-speaking peers in other academic subjects. The most comprehensive review of the research to date, conducted by Christine Rossell and Keith Baker, demonstrates that 78% of studies show that native-language instruction programs are either no more effective or actually worse than doing nothing to help to such children.
Immigrant parents seem to know that their children won’t be helped by teaching them in their native language. In the last few years, Hispanic parents have led protests at schools in California, New York, New Jersey and elsewhere when their children were put in Spanish-language classrooms. But bilingual education proponents remain steadfast in supporting native-language teaching for Hispanic youngsters, even though most other language-minority children receive early instruction in English. Because Hispanic youngsters are treated differently from other non-English-speaking children, the Center for Equal Opportunity decided to ask Hispanic parents what they want for their children.
We commissioned a random survey of 600 Hispanic parents in the five of the most heavily Hispanic cities in the U.S.: Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, Miami and New York. The survey was conducted in both Spanish and English by a polling firm that specializes in the Hispanic market.
We asked parents: ”Should children of Hispanic background living in the United States be taught to read and write Spanish before they are taught English, or should they be taught English as soon as possible?” Almost two- thirds (63%) said Hispanic students should be taught English as soon as possible, and only 16.7% thought they should learn Spanish first.
We also asked Hispanic parents if they preferred that their children be taught their academic courses in Spanish, even if it meant less time spent learning English, or in English because they would spend more time learning English. Although bilingual education advocates don’t want to admit it, teaching children academic courses in Spanish instead of in English really does mean they’ll spend less time learning English because the number of classroom hours are finite. ”Time on task” is important in mastering any subject, but especially in mastering a new language. Not surprisingly, more than 4 out of 5 respondents in our survey preferred all-English instruction for their children.
In fact, the majority of Hispanic parents ranked learning to read, write and speak English as the single most important education goal overall for their children. Hispanic parents ranked learning academic subjects like math, history and science as second in importance. Only 11% of the respondents ranked learning Spanish as most important, and another 4% said that learning about Hispanic culture was most important.
Despite the lack of support among their parents for teaching Hispanic children in Spanish – and so little evidence that it provides any educational benefits – bilingual education remains the model favored by federal and state governments, including Colorado’s. When Coloradans complain that Hispanic immigrants aren’t learning English fast enough, don’t blame the parents. Look instead to the state’s legislators and education officials who force Hispanic children, against their parents’ wishes, to suffer the consequences of bad government policy.