End bilingual-ed scam

Myrna C. George
Providence Journal-Bulletin
Sunday, April 1, 2001

ANY RHODE ISLAND legislator who advocates change within the existing bilingual/English as a Second Language (ESL) structure does so at the risk of being called a racist. I am not a racist.

I know the problems faced by immigrants; I am the granddaughter of Greek immigrants. Many of us are the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and we know full well that the key to success in this country is often the ability to use this country's language English.

This is well recognized by today's immigrants. They teach my children Spanish in school so they can be minimum-wage earners. I teach them in English at home so they can be doctors and lawyers. So says Ernesto Ortiz, a Hispanic foreman, who has become frustrated with so-called bilingual-education programs that teach children in their native language before letting them make a transition to English.

Congress initiated bilingual education in 1967 when there was not a scrap of evidence that it would work. Bilingual education was born 30 years ago from a goodhearted but vague impulse by Congress to help Spanish speakers learn English. Rules here are equally vague.

Bilingual education has become a multibillion-dollar business of bureaucrats and militant separatists. And now immigrant parents increasingly see it as the wall around a linguistic ghetto from which their children must escape if they want to rise above the minimum wage.

That a kid will learn English by being taught in Spanish does not seem plausible. Loco, completamente loco was the reaction of parent Luisa Hernandez when a principal explained it to her, but the theory is so ingrained in many school systems that they rarely question it.

One major difficulty with bilingual education is knowing when and how the student should make the transition to English. One parent, Ericka, commented about her son's bilingual classes: All his spelling words, every day, were in Spanish. I began to wonder, is this really bilingual? Or is it just Spanish?

Some 150 families in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood had to sue the State of New York to force the release of their children from a bilingual program. A 1996 survey showed that parents of non-English-speaking students regarded teaching English as the single most important thing that schools do.

Sifting through social-science re-search is always tricky; there are so many studies, their methodologies ob-scured in thick layers of jargon, their outcomes obscured in mathematics. Fortunately, when it comes to bilingual education, someone has done the academic grunt work for us.

Christine Rossell and her research partner, Keith Baker, who directed several studies of bilingual education for the U.S. Department of Education, sifted through scientific evaluations of 300 bilingual programs. Their first conclusion: Most of the research was just plain rotten. Of the 300 evaluations, Rossell and Baker found only 72 that were structurally sound.

Then they compiled a score card based on the results. The outcome was devastating for bilingual education. In head-to-head comparisons between bilingual education and immersion education, bilingual education lost every time.

For instance, 83 percent of the studies comparing the bilingual education with structured-immersion teaching showed kids learned to read better in the structured immersion classes; not a single one showed bilingual to be superior. Perhaps the single most calamitous statistic was in the comparison between bilingual education and nothing at all.

An amazing 64 percent of the studies found kids learned grammar better in sink-or-swim classes without any special features whatsoever than they did in bilingual education. Despite substantial evidence that the federal bilingual-education program is opposed by those it is supposed to help and evidence that it hurts children's education, the educational establishment has been rigorously opposing any abandonment of the program.

The financial and bureaucratic incentives to keep bilingual education on life support are considerable. Because the money is scattered across thousands of budgets at the state, local and federal levels, and often not plainly labeled, it's difficult to come up with a reliable estimate of bilingual educational costs, but they probably approach $ 2 billion nationally.

Any major change in education is wrapped up in money, power and control. Now we have a huge bureaucracy of administrators, bilingual psychologists and textbook publishers producing books in Spanish. Whether anybody wants to admit it or not, there's a huge investment in keeping this going. Unfortunately, the result is a poorer education for about 1,200 children in Rhode Island and the waste of many dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.

Bilingual education is only part of the education-quality problem, but it is indicative of the raw deal immigrants are getting from America's education system. All in all, the barriers preventing today's learners from becoming tomorrow's leaders still look overwhelmingly high. But immigrants have one enormous advantage: Most of them desperately want to learn, and it is our duty to help them learn in a more effective manner.

Myrna C. George, a Democrat, re-presents District 31 (Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich, Exeter) in the Rhode Island House.