Answers to an English Question

Instead of Ending Program, New York May Offer a Choice

Now that California has repudiated bilingual education in a statewide referendum, and Arizona is expected to do the same in November, New York, with its large immigrant population, would seem to be another domino likely to tumble.

Not so fast.

A City Hall hearing last week — as well as the tentative recommendations of a mayoral task force, and the preliminary findings of a Board of Education subcommittee — made clear that bilingual education, at least in some form, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Where California voters chose, by a wide margin, to require children who spoke little or no English to be immersed in a yearlong crash course in English, and Arizonans are expected to endorse a similar requirement at the polls on Nov. 7, advisers to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani trod a much more careful path last week.

They suggested that an immersion course be offered only as an option to New York City parents, with the current bilingual program left largely in place. While the mayor advocated limiting a student’s maximum stay in the program to two years, he expressed no desire to tear down the entire system in the process.

It is not that critics of New York City’s entrenched bilingual educational program — a virtual system within a system that educates nearly one in six public school students — are lacking ammunition.

Though such programs were intended to be transitional, nearly half of all students who are enrolled in bilingual education or the more intensive English-as-a-second-language classes fail to master English well enough to leave the program after three years, according to a study released last month by the City Board of Education. And many of those same students fail to do so after as many as eight years, including more than half of those who enter such programs as sixth graders.

Those findings mirror the statistics in an earlier study commissioned in 1994 by Ramon C. Cortines, who was then schools chancellor. That study suggested that many students in bilingual programs were learning neither English nor their native language well.

How could such a flawed system be so impervious to criticism, let alone change? In part, the answer lies in the fierce desire of some parents, particularly those who speak Spanish, to have their children retain their native language.

But the bilingual program also endures, critics say, because it is insulated by an especially thick political and legal cushion, which protects its administration and the jobs of thousands of teachers and teachers’ aides.

“It was a jobs operation,” Mr. Cortines, who resigned in 1995, said in an interview last week. He added, “I think it is protected by a highly organized, politicized group of people that see anything that threatens bilingual education as threatening their position in K-to-12 education, higher education or some of the special interest groups.”

“In an insidious way,” he said, “they’re holding kids — and parents who are not well educated — as political pawns.”

Mr. Cortines, who was hounded into resigning by Mr. Giuliani over disagreements on a range of issues, said he agreed with the mayor’s prescription for bilingual education. “You can give him my report with a ribbon tied around it,” he said.

The seeds of the New York City bilingual program were sown in 1974. In response to a lawsuit, the Board of Education signed a federal consent decree with Aspira, a Hispanic education and advocacy group, that requires that students who speak limited English be taught at least partly in their native languages.

Since then, board officials say, Aspira, with the support of politicians who represent Hispanic neighborhoods, has sometimes taken a hard line on changing the program. Until 1995, for example, the group insisted that students automatically be tested for bilingual programs if they had Hispanic surnames, regardless of whether they were born in the United States. At times, fourth-generation Americans with no foreign language spoken at home were inadvertently assigned to the program.

Aspira officials have said they feared that, without the testing, some students who needed services might fall through the cracks or be ignored. But Mr. Cortines, among others, was skeptical.

Popular opinion would seem to be running against bilingual education.

At the behest of Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who bankrolled the effort to defeat bilingual education in California in 1998, Zogby International, the polling organization, asked 1,411 likely New York State voters that same year whether they would support legislation that would require “all public school instruction to be conducted in English” and require “students not fluent in English to be placed in an intensive one-year English immersion program.”

Seventy-nine percent of those questioned said they would support such legislation, including 62 percent of those who identified themselves as Latino. The overall poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Why would a politician, armed with such numbers, be reluctant to challenge the bilingual establishment?

For one thing, anyone who raises questions about bilingual education runs the risk of being labeled anti-immigrant or racially insensitive.

“Politicians tend to be risk-averters, and this looks a little risky,” said Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie. “There isn’t a huge constituency clamoring to change it, even if public opinion may be on that side generally.”

Parents who might seek to make an end run around the bilingual or political establishment to eliminate bilingual education, much as the parents in California and Arizona did, would find that the weapons available to Californians and Arizonans do not exist here.

Unlike the referendum process in California, Arizona and 24 other states, New York’s does not allow citizens groups to place measures on the state ballot. (The State Legislature can.) And while it would take only 30,000 signatures to place a measure on the New York City ballot, it would not necessarily be binding on the Board of Education, which is chartered by the state.

Then again, there is no organized group of parents or others actively seeking to eliminate bilingual education in New York City. Mr. Unz, the California entrepreneur who is looking to establish a foothold in New York, had pinned his hopes on the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a coalition of church and neighborhood groups that has been among the most outspoken critics of bilingual education.

But at the City Hall hearing on Tuesday, parents and leaders of the foundation made clear that they did not seek the radical surgery advocated by Mr. Unz.

Though the parents told emotional stories about children who failed to learn English in bilingual classes and principals who assigned children to bilingual classes regardless of the parents’ wishes, the parents said that they wanted to work within the system to change it.

They spoke of limiting a child’s stay in the bilingual program to three years and of ensuring that principals advised them of the choices for their children: a bilingual class, in which major subjects like biology and social studies are taught extensively in the native language, or an English-as-a-second-language class, in which at least three periods are devoted to English language instruction and major subjects like mathematics are often taught using props, with no specific language affiliation.

Munira Daoud, 35, who arrived from Sudan with her husband and 6-year-old daughter last year, said it took 14 months to persuade a Queens principal that the girl, who had been educated in a British school, had been placed in the bilingual program in error.

“I’m not against bilingual education,” she said. “But let the parent decide.”

Though even supporters of the citywide bilingual program say it is in need of serious repair and needs better-qualified teachers, the program is not without its success stories.

Board statistics show that those students who do manage to successfully complete bilingual or English-as-a-second-language programs do better on the English Regents exam, for example, than all other students. Students who pass bilingual programs also have a higher graduation rate (77.4 percent) than all other students who receive a mainstream education (66.1 percent), though critics say that those who exit bilingual programs fastest are high-achieving to begin with.

Among those who attended the hearing last week was Victor Levy, 15, a sophomore at Gregorio Luperon Preparatory High School in Washington Heights. Victor spoke of how much he was enjoying the intensive, two-year bilingual program at the school, in which instruction in Spanish gradually gives way to English, though not entirely.

He spoke flawless English even though he had arrived from the Dominican Republic only five months ago, speaking no English at all.

For those searching for an argument to retain bilingual education, Victor said, “Look at me.”

GRAPHIC: Photo (Naum Kazhdan/The New York Times)

Chart: “KEEPING TRACK — Learning English as a Newcomer” Statistics on student performances in New York City add to the debate over the best methods for teaching English to young children

Students who start young pick it up later . . . Percentage who achieve the fluency to leave bilingual or English-as-a-second-language programs in three years:

IN 1ST GRADE: 51.5%
IN 2ND GRADE: 42.4%
IN 3RD GRADE: 38.4%
IN 6TH GRADE: 17.3%
IN 9TH GRADE: 11.1%

. . . and programs with more intensive English dominate Cumulative percentage who acheive fluency after starting in kindergarten in 1990:

The E.S.L. program involves more intensive English classes than the bilingual program

Graph tracks the percentage of fluency acheived due to the E.S.L. program and Bilingual program from 1991 to 1999 (Source: New York City Board of Education)(pg. 40)

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