Coming to Terms With Bilingualism in New York City Schools

IN 1974, The United States Supreme Court ruled that students who do not speak English are entitled to special language instruction as a matter of equal educational opportunity. Fourteen years later, the goal of complying with a consent decree based on that ruling may finally be in sight for the New York City school system.

One reason it has taken so long is that educators disagree over how best to teach pupils whose primary language is not English. Should they be taught some subjects in their native language as they learn English – the bilingual approach – or should fluency in English be the first priority? The issue has also involved politics within the city school system, and budget considerations.

In 1985, the Educational Priorities Panel, a civic watchdog organization, published a report that said that more than 44,000 youngsters who should have been getting some form of bilingual education were get insufficient special attention.

Last month, Robin Willner, the panel’s project director who wrote the 1985 report, said that the Board of Education had since developed an effective bilingual plan. In 1986, the board dedicated $10 million in increased state aid to establish classes required by the 1974 consent decree.

The budget for the current school year includes an additional $12 million for bilingual classes plus $2 million for guidance and other support services. As a result, Ms. Willner said, an additional 6,000 students were added to the more than 86,000 already receiving some form of bilingual education, compliance with the 1974 decree could be achieved by July. But last week, a spokesman for the Board of Education said that although this was the goal, ”we won’t be perfect by this summer.”

For the first time since 1985, Ms. Willner said, city school officials recently visited districts instead of relying on ”paper monitoring.” They found five districts not in compliance last year and an additional eight this year, she said.

New York public schools use a combination of bilingualism and teaching English as a second language, and each method has its supporters. The city’s new Schools Chancellor, Richard R. Green, has said he strongly supports the concept of bilingualism, adding, however, that English ”is a prerequisite for success in the United States.”

Education Politics

Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of the New York City Board of Education, supports bilingual education but complained that in the past, too many districts treated it as an employment program.

He added, however, that he is encouraged by the strong desire of non-English-speaking parents to have their children learn English as rapidly as possible.

In a recent report, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said: ”The issue of how best to teach non-English-speaking students is mired in the debate over bilingual education, a conflict that often has as much to do with politics as education.”

Mr. Wagner has said some Puerto Rican parents urge the schools to put less stress on English because Puerto Rico is bilingual. But, he said, people of different Hispanic backgrounds – Dominicans, Cubans and some other Latin Americans – make English a high priority in their children’s schooling.

On a pedagogical level, supporters of special instruction for non-English-speaking children are also divided.

The bilingual view is that students need to be taught for a part of the day in their own language to prevent them from falling behind in academic subjects. This would gradually phase them into all-English instruction.

Proponents of teaching English as a second language argue that the purely bilingual method delays mastery of English for children who don’t hear or speak it at home or on the street, and that it is too costly to provide bilingual teachers for all the different languages. Sometimes there are as many as 40 languages spoken in one New York City school district.

A third approach consists of putting learners into an English-only crash program.

Some educators point to what they view as ”the good old days” when non-English-speaking students went on to succeed in mainstream America without special treatment. But they overlook the fact that large numbers of this earlier group dropped out of school. Today, such losses to society and the economy are considered intolerable.

Educators tend to agree that the goal ought to be to lead children as rapidly as possible into the English-speaking mainstream of the schools they attend. Critics maintain that the transition often takes too long, up to seven years in some cases. But some New York experts say that the process here usually takes no more than three years.

Even when the Board of Eucation achieves compliance with the agreed-upon goals, the bickering will no doubt continue over how best to teach the pupils involved. But even the critical 1985 report noted that a broad unity of general purpose underlies the squabbles.

The report noted that whatever their disagreements, educators involved in the issue tend to concur on at least one basic assumption: ”Regardless of the specific pedagogical approach, all language-minority students require special supplemental education services if they are to learn English, reap the full benefits of their schooling, and enter the mainstream of American life.”

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