Immersion Promoted as Alternative to Bilingual Instruction

A draft report by a mayoral task force recommends that public school students who do not speak English be given the option of a speedier immersion in it, a proposal that would most likely curtail many of the city’s long-running bilingual programs.

The task force is racing to build support for its recommendations even as the chairman of a Board of Education subcommittee is corralling board support for his more modest recommendations to improve the troubled bilingual program without dismantling it.

The Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education, headed by Randy M. Mastro, a lawyer and former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, recommends that students who do not speak English be given the option of taking all their subject classes in English, a process known as English immersion, according to the draft report obtained by The New York Times.

Right now, students have two options. They can choose bilingual education, in which they learn academic subjects in their native languages and study English in separate classes. Or they can choose not to take bilingual education and be placed in English as a second language classes while taking their subject classes in English. English as a second language courses are taught in English, although native languages are used to help students move into the mainstream.

One model of English immersion, used in Oceanside, Calif., requires teachers to instruct non-English speaking students in English exclusively. If students do not understand a word or phrase after a teacher repeats it three times, teachers are allowed to translate it into the child’s native language and then resume teaching in English.

Two years ago, Californians voted to end bilingual education and make Spanish-speaking students spend the day taking classes in English. Initial test scores have been encouraging for supporters of immersion, and now the efficacy of bilingual education appears to be called into question across the nation. On Election Day, Arizona residents will vote on a ballot initiative seeking to outlaw bilingual education.

In New York City, the mayor’s task force, according to the draft report, would also call for giving students a maximum of three years to achieve English proficiency. In the current program, students have been known to remain in bilingual classes for eight years or more.

Other areas of recommendations by the task force include plans for recruiting more certified teachers and increasing the amount of time English-language learners receive in instruction, according to the draft.

The task force is scheduled to hold a hearing today at City Hall. Members are seeking public comment before drawing up recommendations for submission to the Board of Education by the end of the month, Mr. Mastro said.

Some advocates for bilingual education are lining up to support the recommendations of the board subcommittee chairman, Irving S. Hamer Jr., who wants to preserve a longstanding system that encourages immigrants and other non-English-speaking students to take their classes in both English and their native languages.

Dr. Hamer said yesterday that he had hoped to put his recommendations up for a vote before his six board colleagues tomorrow, but William C. Thompson Jr., the board president, said late yesterday that a vote would be premature and that the proposal was unlikely to appear on the agenda. Dr. Hamer released the recommendations to board members over the weekend.

The seven-member Board of Education will ultimately decide on the shape of bilingual education. The mayor controls two votes on the board, but he has been known to use his considerable influence to sway other members.

Both proposals are being circulated almost a month after the Board of Education released a study of bilingual education and English as a second language. The study evaluated the performance of 16,000 students over nine years and found mixed results for both programs. The report found, among other things, that students in middle school and those in special education sometimes remained in bilingual and English as a second language programs for eight or nine years.

Support for the bilingual method, particularly by Hispanic groups like Aspira, became so insistent that New York State adopted a law in the 1970’s giving non-English-speaking students the option of taking bilingual programs instead of English as a second language. The task force recommends taking a hard look at the law to see if any changes are needed. Any changes, however, would require a vote by the Board of Education and an amendment to the statute. Some advocates of bilingual education were pleased with Dr. Hamer’s recommendations because they do not seek to dismantle the law.

“I fully endorse the recommendations that Dr. Hamer has put forth to the board,” said Luis O. Reyes, an assistant professor of education at Brooklyn College and a former Board of Education member. Dr. Reyes also served as a director of the Office of Research and Advocacy for Aspira of New York.

Dr. Hamer recommends changes that few bilingual supporters can quibble over, including a policy to stop switching non-English-speaking students between bilingual and English as a second language classes, because doing so hurts their academic performance.

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