Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy said yesterday that he had ordered community school district superintendents to stop switching non-English-speaking students between bilingual and English-as-a-second-language classes because doing so could can stunt their academic growth.
Students who stay in one program enter mainstream classrooms conducted in English faster than students who are switched between programs, Mr. Levy said. When students are moved around, confusion results because the approaches are so different, a new Board of Education report says.
In bilingual classes, which are mandated by the state, children study academic subjects in their native languages while also learning English.
English as a second language is taught in English, although native languages may be used to help students move into the mainstream.
Mr. Levy said his decision was based on the report, which was publicly released yesterday. The report was commissioned by the board’s English language learners subcommittee, led by Irving S. Hamer, the board’s Manhattan representative. It evaluated the academic performance of 16,000 students with little or no English over nine years.
Unlike the recent English-only debate in California, the report does not address whether a prolonged course of bilingual education produces better results than immersion in mainstream classes taught in English, with a shorter course in English as a second language. Mr. Hamer said the study was not aimed at dismantling bilingual education, but fine-tuning existing programs.
Any move to chip away at bilingual education in New York City would be likely to create a political furor, since it is mandated by law and supported by powerful advocacy groups and elected officials. However, the Board of Education is under pressure to improve bilingual education at a time when all students are expected to meet heightened academic standards. Last month, Mr. Levy came under fire from advocates for failing to provide adequate services to non-English-speaking students in summer school.
In the city school system, there are 148,399 non-English-speaking students who speak 140 different languages, including Spanish, Creole, Korean, Chinese and Russian.
Roughly half of those students take part in bilingual education programs. The others take programs in English as a second language, also known as E.S.L.
Over the years, students have been shuttled between bilingual and E.S.L. programs in the city’s 32 community school districts and high schools, as if the two programs were the same, Mr. Levy said. Which program a student enters is determined by school administrators, and by factors such as the availability of services in a given school.
“Switching children back and forth is correlated with inferior results,” Mr. Levy said. “Accordingly, I personally made every superintendent aware of that and instructed them to discourage principals from shifting children back and forth.”
One of the studies shows that 84 percent of kindergarten students in E.S.L. entered mainstream classes within three years. For bilingual programs, the figure was 73 percent. But among kindergarten students who moved between bilingual and E.S.L. programs, just 20 percent entered mainstream classes within three years.
Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, an advocacy group for students, who has criticized the school system for failing to provide services to non-English-speaking students, said she was appalled by the findings, though she had not yet read the report.
“Imagine if a kid is learning to read, and first you’re teaching him in phonics and then you switch to the more esoteric whole-language approach,” she said. “The child is not likely to do as well.”
The report found that older non-English speakers also had problems. Only 45 percent of those who entered the system in the sixth grade had left either program and entered the general student population after eight years, the report shows.
One study says about 46 percent of the students with little or no English who entered the system in sixth grade never completed high school.
Last year, advocates called on the board to consider alternative paths for students learning English to take the new high-stakes English Regents exam. The report says these students may need after-school and Saturday tutorials, extended time, or both, to meet the requirements.
The report also supports what linguists and educators have contended all along: it is easy for young children to pick up language skills. Overall, about 62 percent of the students in the report who entered either program in kindergarten entered mainstream programs within three years.