Report Faults Bilingual Education in New York

In a first step toward re-examining bilingual education in New York City, the Board of Education released a study yesterday concluding that the current efforts to educate tens of thousands of students in their native languages are flawed.

The study found that students — even recent immigrants — who take most of their classes in English generally fare better academically than students in bilingual programs, where little English is spoken.

The Schools Chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, released the report yesterday and pledged to establish a committee of parents and educators to identify which of the city’s programs for 150,000 students whose native language is not English work and which do not.

“This report appears to show that our students in bilingual programs are not showing rapid enough progress in English language proficiency,” Mr. Cortines said in a statement yesterday.

In the last 15 years, the city has developed an array of programs to teach children everything from math to history in their native languages. The theory behind the programs is that students will fall behind in these subjects if they are taught in English. Current bilingual programs are given in Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, French, Greek, Arabic and Bengali, at a cost last year of more than $300 million.

The report comes amid a mounting debate by educators about the degree to which bilingual programs may fail to help many children learn English well, and also fail to teach other subjects well.

Until now, Federal education aid has provided incentives for schools to expand these programs by giving schools aid for each student referred to bilingual education.

But President Clinton is expected to sign legislation today that revises the system, permitting schools more flexibility in spending Federal aid. Under the new rules, school systems will be able to use Federal funds to revamp entire schools with large immigrant populations.

Under the legislation, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, bilingual education children will now be included in the old Chapter 1, the Federal Government’s main program to help impoverished children reach their grade levels in reading and math. The legislation previously prohibited bilingual education students from enrolling in Chapter 1, now called Title 1.

The review of programs for students whose first language is not English is sure to intensify the arguments of educators critical of the city’s bilingual programs. Their concerns are on two fronts: some children who do not belong in such programs are referred to them anyway, and other children who do are sometimes stunted in their development of English skills.

Enrollment in programs for city students labeled “limited English proficient,” and thereby eligible for Federal aid, has nearly doubled in eight years, from 85,000 students in 1986-1987 to 154,000 in the 1993-1994 school year.

The study also found that New York City students who speak Korean, Chinese or Russian are testing out of both bilingual and English-as-a-second-language classes far more quickly than Haitian Creole or Spanish-speaking students.

Educators have previously recognized that different ethnic groups place different values on English literacy. Many Chinese, Korean and Russian parents, for instance, generally want their children to learn English as quickly as possible, whereas some Puerto Rican parents are eager for their children to maintain their Spanish.

But the new study is the first to quantify the dramatic manner in which students of different languages perform in the special language programs. It shows that about 9 of 10 Korean-speaking or Russian students who enter English-as-a-second-language or bilingual programs in kindergarten learn English well enough to test out of the programs within three years.

About 8 of 10 Chinese-speaking students, 6 of 10 Haitian Creole-speaking students, and only 5 of 10 Spanish-speaking students in the equivalent programs test out in three years, the study showed.

“At all grade levels, students served in E.S.L.-only programs exited their programs faster than those served in bilingual programs,” the report said.

About 79 percent of students who entered English-as-a-second-language classes in kindergarten were able to test out within three years, but only 51 percent of students who entered bilingual classes in kindergarten were able to test out within three years, the study said.

Students who enter the programs in higher grades are less likely to be able to test out within three years. For instance, only 33 percent of students who enter English-as-a-second-language classes in sixth grade test out within three years, and only 7 percent of students who enter bilingual classes in sixth grade test out within three years, the study showed.

Only one other large urban school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District, has issued a report critical of its efforts to educate students with limited English, according to the National Association for Bilingual Education.

But that was nearly a decade ago, said James J. Lyons, executive director of the association, which is based in Washington. He said that New York City in its examination of bilingual education “is at or ahead of the curve of understanding a commitment to the program.”

Whether the issue is quality of or access to bilingual education, the program has come under mounting criticism nationally from educators, state officials and civil rights groups, like the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, for failing generations of children whose first language is not English.

In New York City, many parents and educators have criticized the manner in which students are channeled into bilingual programs. From kindergarten on, every student whose parent has a Hispanic last name or who specifies on a questionnaire that a foreign language is sometimes spoken at home is required to take an English language test each year. Students who score below the 40th percentile are automatically assigned to bilingual classes if the school has at least 15 students of that language group and grade.

Students assigned to an English-as-a-second-language program receive training aimed only at teaching them English. Bilingual students receive some training in English, but get a significant part, if not most of their instruction, in their native language.

According to a report released earlier this month by Herman Badillo, City Hall’s special counsel for school finances, per-student spending on bilingual students is $7,289, compared with $23,598 for special education and $5,149 for regular students.

In a discussion of the report at a meeting at the board’s headquarters in Brooklyn yesterday, Leonard Hellenbrand, the board’s budget director, offered different figures, reporting that the additional cost of educating each elementary and intermediate student in the special language programs was $974, and the additional cost of educating each high school student in the special programs was $1,215.

Under questioning from Luis O. Reyes, the board’s Manhattan representative, Mr. Hellenbrand said he could not explain the difference.

Mr. Reyes said Mr. Badillo’s figures exaggerated the costs of bilingual programs and were “dangerous and inaccurate.” He also criticized the board’s study, saying that it measured academic success only in terms of English reading achievement and by how quickly students are able to exit bilingual programs.

He noted that the goals of the board’s special language programs include “native language development” as well as learning English quickly.

He also criticized the comparisons of Korean and Russian students with Spanish and Haitian students, because, he said, the former often come from middle-class families and the latter from poorer backgrounds.

Mr. Cortines said he wanted the committee he will appoint to ask what is being taught in bilingual and E.S.L. programs, whether bilingual programs follow an appropriate core curriculum in the native languages, how well prepared the teachers are in these programs and what modifications might be needed to respond to the city’s changing demographics.

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