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 a thousand 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 that effectively ended 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, Md., 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 found 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 that their children don’t. 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. 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 Spanish.
Former Denverite Linda Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based think tank, and was director of public liaison in the Reagan administration.