A mother should know.
To measure the success of bilingual education in America, listen to the testimonies of some Hispanic mothers who are suing the state of New York for keeping their children in bilingual programs beyond the state-mandated three years. Juana Zarzuela testified that her son was transferred from bilingual
education to special education despite her objection to his participation in either program. “My son has been in bilingual education for five years and in special education since 1994. [He] cannot read or write in English or Spanish,” she said. Carmen Quinones testified, “My son is in ninth grade and has been in bilingual education since he entered the school system. My son is confused between Spanish and English.”
Ada Jimenez testified that her grandson also cannot read or write in either language after five years of bilingual education. According to Jimenez: “I personally met one of his teachers in the bilingual program who did not speak any English. We were told that because my grandson has a Spanish last name, he should remain in bilingual classes.” Because of his name, the school put Jimenez’s grandson into a bilingual program in which up to 80 percent of his day was spent in Spanish – even though he did not speak any Spanish.
Parents aren’t the only ones upset about bilingual education. Edwin Selzer, an assistant principal for social studies at one New York high school, testified that “once a child was in a bilingual program, he remained in such a program and was never mainstreamed into English-speaking classes. Even when students themselves asked to withdraw from the bilingual program, the assistant principal [for] foreign languages did not grant their request.” Selzer also stated that “even the Spanish skills of students in bilingual programs were poor – many students graduating from Eastern District High School were illiterate in both English and Spanish.”
Bilingual education is not just a problem in New York, but across the nation, and these kids aren’t all immigrants. Of all children whom the federal government estimates need help in English, 60 percent are U.S.-born American citizens, some of whose families go back several generations. Nor are language-minority children the only ones who suffer from this program; native English speakers are subjected to a substandard education in the name of diversity as well.
Cherise Johnson’s son was placed in a bilingual dual-immersion program in a California school despite her objections. According to the school, there was no space available in regular classrooms. Dual immersion combines native English- and other-language speakers for instruction in two languages. This type of instruction is being promoted in several cities in California, Michigan, New Jersey and Massachusetts. But the method is not suitable for all children, especially those who already may be performing below grade level.
San Francisco experimented with dual immersion and decided to abandon it. School Superintendent Bill Rojas banned 600 English-speaking black students from Chinese bilingual programs because their test scores were far below that of black students in regular classes. “We would go and visit schools and find three African-American students in a class with 27 Chinese students. I’d see a teacher trying to talk multilingually. I’d say, ‘Aren’t the English-speaking students getting less?’ and she’d say, ‘Yes'” Rojas told the Los Angeles Times last June.
In Los Angeles, Latino parents were so upset about the failure of bilingual education that they kept nearly 100 of their children from school for almost two weeks to protest the lack of sufficient instruction in English. One parent told Education Week, “I don’t want to wait so long for her to be in all-English classes. I want her to be a professional when she grows up, to have more than us.” These parents have a legal right to request all-English instruction for their children, but their rights effectively were nullified by the hurdles school administrators placed before them.
The boycott ended only when the school promised to provide classes in English. The school also promised to halt the practice of requiring parents to attend parent-teacher conferences before allowing children out of the bilingual program. Parent-teacher conferences often are used to bully, intimidate or shame parents into leaving their children in bilingual programs they know don’t work.
Bilingual education is working so poorly in California that the state Board of Education is backing off from forcing school districts to use native-language instruction. And, after years of single-minded devotion to long-term bilingual education, the Los Angeles Unified School District actually is trying to move children into all-English classes sooner. The California Teachers Association also has joined the stampede away from bilingual education. In its June 1995 newsletter, the association stated that the overemphasis on children’s native language had “crippled the Spanish-speaking child’s educational development.”
Bilingual education began in the late sixties as a small, $7.5 million federal program primarily for Mexican-American children. The idea was to teach them in Spanish for a short period until they got up to speed in English. Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas, a leading sponsor of the first federal bilingual law in 1968, explained that its intent was “to make children fully literate in English” and “not to make the mother tongue dominant.” Unfortunately, bilingual education soon fell under the sway of political activists who promoted native-language instruction as a civil right. In fact, the Supreme Court’s Lau vs. Nichols decision in 1974 held that the civil rights of language-minority children were being violated unless they were offered some program to ensure they receive an equal educational opportunity. The court did not, however, require native-language instruction. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, nevertheless, used Lau as an excuse to insist that schools offer bilingual education or face a cutoff of federal funds.
The reason bilingual education is failing so many of America’s students is because it relies on a flawed theory. This theory states that to become fully proficient in a new language, a student first must be literate and proficient in his or her native language. This means that non-English-proficient children must be taught to read and write in their native language in a five-to seven-year program in which up to 80 percent of their day is spent hearing, speaking, reading and writing their native language. Unfortunately almost no empirical evidence supports this theory, which ignores virtually everything we know about language acquisition. The theory itself was not developed until after bilingual education was institutionalized around the United States and is more a rationalization than a legitimate educational theory.
Several published studies prove that the push for bilingual education is based more upon political muscle-flexing by the ethnic and education lobbies than upon sound educational theory. The best that can be said in favor of bilingual education is that its efficacy is unproved. In fact, most research that would seem to validate bilingual education is unsound. The Congressional Research Service conducted a review of bilingual education and found that, at best, the evidence was inconclusive. Even Professor Kenji Hakuta, a leading advocate of bilingual education, admitted in 1986 that “an awkward tension blankets the lack of empirical demonstration of the success of bilingual-education programs.” The National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, reviewed two Department of Education studies of bilingual education in 1992 and found them so methodologically unsound as to be useless. These two major studies were so bad that the NAS actually recommended that the Education Department “not seek to fund any specific additional analyses from the Longitudinal or Immersion studies.” Despite this evidence, the National Association for Bilingual Education, or NABE, had the gall to claim that the NAS review “validated” these two studies and bilingual education.
Professor Christine Rossell of Boston University recently completed an extensive review of more than 300 bilingual-education studies. She found that out of only 60 methodologically acceptable studies measuring reading ability, 78 percent found bilingual education to be no better or actually worse than doing nothing. In terms of math scores, 91 percent of only 34 scientifically valid studies showed bilingual education to be no better or worse than doing nothing. After visiting dozens of bilingual classes, Rossell found that those few bilingual programs that do work do so only because they subvert the theory and do not waste time trying to teach children to read and write in any language other than English. She has recommended that the best program for language-minority children is immersion in English in a class with a specially trained teacher who may use their native language only when really necessary.
In spite of the evidence, Latino parents who oppose bilingual education often find themselves fighting a lonely battle. In fact, the most striking similarity between the parent groups in Los Angeles and New York is that they both are being assisted by local religious organizations and not traditional Hispanic advocacy or civil-rights groups. Lacking a racial identity to unify diverse Hispanic groups around the country, Latino activists rely on Spanish to fulfill this function. Latino activists may believe it is in their material interests to maintain the Spanish language of their constituency rather than help them assimilate and learn English. Despite their attempts, professional Latino lobbyists have not convinced a majority of Hispanics that bilingual education is better for their children. Surveys show that the overwhelming majority of immigrants believe it is a family’s duty, and not the school’s, to help children maintain their native language. When Mexican and Cuban parents were asked their opinion in an Education Department survey, four-fifths declared their opposition to teaching children in Spanish if it meant less time devoted to English. With more than 20 million immigrants in the United States, it’s more important than ever to teach newcomers to speak English and to think of themselves as Americans if we hope to remain one people, not simply a conglomeration of different groups. It is time for federal and state legislators to overhaul bilingual education. Clearly, the best policy for children – and for the country – is to teach English to immigrant and nonimmigrant children as quickly as possible.
Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and was director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rightsduring the Reagan administration.