NEW YORK—Thirty years after the federal government mandated bilingual education for students with little or no proficiency in English, the programs are at the center of a national debate that some contend may have as much to do with politics and immigration as it does with education.
Several states have passed or are considering initiatives banning bilingual education. Immigrants in New Jersey have taken to the streets to lobby school officials to teach their children primarily in English, while complaints from dozens of Latino parents resulted in 34 proposals by Evanston Township High School, just north of Chicago, to improve its bilingual program.
In New York, the Board of Education plans for the first time to give parents a choice between placing their children in traditional bilingual programs or in more intensive English as a second language classes.
Bilingual education, in which students study core subjects in their native language before eventually taking them in English, is under increasing criticism from parents and educators who say it puts students at a disadvantage and takes too long. They maintain that an approach that teaches mainly in English produces better and faster results.
Proponents acknowledge the bilingual program has problems, including a nationwide shortage of certified bilingual-education teachers. Even so, they assert that bilingual education is effective when properly implemented, that it cushions the transition to English and that it keeps students from falling behind academically while they acquire competence in English.
In the absence of any study that conclusively identifies either method as superior, the question increasingly is being posed to the public. California’s 1998 passage of Proposition 227, which effectively banned traditional bilingual education, led the way. It was followed by the success of Arizona’s Proposition 303 last year.
Similar measures to overhaul bilingual education are being discussed in Massachusetts, Oregon, Colorado and Rhode Island.
“I don’t see why it is cruel to teach children English. Their parents want them to learn English,” said Ron Unz, a physicist turned Silicon Valley software millionaire who is crusading nationally for the abolition of traditional bilingual education, particularly for children beginning elementary school. As part of his effort, Unz is founder and chairman of English for the Children, an advocacy group based in Palo Alto, Calif.
“The mental image that sometimes comes up with a limited English student is a 14-year-old who just arrived from Mexico and doesn’t speak English,” Unz said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is over half of the limited English students were born in America and most of the remainder came when they were very young.”
“It’s very easy for a 5- or 6-year-old child to learn English. The reason you have so many students in junior high or high school who are still classified as not knowing English is that they weren’t taught English, and I think that’s cruel,” said Unz, who is not opposed to waivers permitting bilingual education for older students.
His group favors scrapping traditional bilingual education in favor of an intensive, one-year program in which children with limited or no English are placed together and taught primarily in English.
English for the Children was instrumental in getting the propositions on the ballots in California and Arizona. The measures had 61 percent approval in California and 63 percent in Arizona.
California’s new law has had a catalytic effect: Test results from the first two years of the program showed students in English immersion programs posting achievement scores that are up an average 39 percent. Though the implementation of Proposition 227 coincided with a state-mandated reduction in class sizes, one study found that the smaller classes accounted for only a fraction of the gain.
Most recently, Unz has targeted New York City. The city’s public schools have 177,000 students with limited English skills and spend $46 million a year on bilingual education.
Talk of challenges to bilingual education dismays proponents such as Rudy Rodriguez, a veteran educator and director of bilingual-teacher education programs at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.
Immigrant backlash alleged
He suspects some of the English immersion fervor cloaks a backlash against immigration.
“Is it an anti-bilingual education move or an anti-immigration move?” he asked. “My suspicion is that bilingual education has gotten wrapped up in the immigration issue.
“The immersion method, in my mind, is a throwback to the experience I went through in the early years, which was a sink or swim kind of experience. These programs, which are being promoted as immersion programs, I think of as submersion programs. Many of the kids who went through that type of experience didn’t survive and ended up dropping out of school.”
Chicago Public Schools are in the third year of a revamped bilingual program that features new accountability standards and aims for English proficiency at grade level in three years and has shown promising results, according to Armando Almendarez, the system’s director of language, cultural and early childhood education.
“Ours is a transitional program of instruction,” said Almendarez, who said instruction in English as a second language begins in 1st grade and is steadily expanded until students are spending up to 80 percent of their day learning in English by 3rd grade.
“Prior to that, we had thousands of children who were remaining 6 to 12 years in bilingual programs. So, a student could have entered in bilingual and exited in bilingual.”
The national controversy over bilingual education is far from settled, according to both sides.
Message to Congress
“When I got on the ballot in California, I thought something might be done about it nationally, that Congress would do something,” Unz said. “When the ballot passed in a landslide, I thought Congress would do something. When the test scores came in, I thought Congress would do something.
“So far, Congress hasn’t done anything. So, I will have to do a few more states to nudge Congress along.”
“It will be a continuing battle. No question about it,” said Johnny Villamil-Casanova, an official of New York’s Aspira, a Latino youth development and advocacy group.
“That’s why we have to be vigilant about what’s going on.”