Should New York Follow California And Erase Bilingual Education?

Passage of a voter initiative re-opens the debate on how to teach immigrants

I OPPOSED California’s Proposition 227 because it was an initiative that did not have a sound educational or research foundation. Under its provisions, bilingual education is abolished and students will have only a year of instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL). That is insufficient time to acquire academic proficiency in English. It defies all research findings, which indicate that it takes five to seven years to become fully proficient in English at the level of other native speakers of English.

In other words, these students are expected not only to acquire enough language skills for social interaction or simple survival; they are also expected to understand, read, write and explain concepts at a cognitive and academic level appropriate to their age and grade. I would like to see anybody – after only a year of instruction in French or Chinese for example – take the New York Regents exam in global history or science entirely in that foreign language. The proposition is an absolutely preposterous initiative that will only lead to students’ academic failure.

Ron Unz, the proponent of Proposition 227 in California, acknowledged that he had never been in a bilingual classroom, although he had been invited many times. I question whether his objectivity has been influenced by his own political aspirations. I, on the contrary, have visited many bilingual classrooms on Long Island where limited-English-proficient students are learning English in social and academic contexts. They are being prepared to meet the New York State standards and assessments. English as second language is and has always been a major component of any bilingual education program. Some years ago in Brooklyn, I experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingual education when my second-grade class scored the second highest among the school’s five second-grade classes on the English reading state test. My students had been in bilingual education programs since kindergarten. The other four classes were all monolingual. My kids had surpassed their English-speaking peers in reading, an affirmation of the consistent body of research that points to the importance of native language literacy in the development of second language literacy.

This principle has also been recognized by the National Council of Teachers of English’s “English Standards for the English Language Arts”: “Students whose first language is not English make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of contect across the curriculum.”

In March, the National Research Council released its study entitled “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.” The council recommended the following: “If language minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English, but speaking a language for which there are instructional guides, learning materials and locally available proficient teachers, then these children should be taught to read in the native language while acquiring proficiency in spoken English and then subsequently taught to extend their skills to reading in English.”

I do not believe that the passage of California’s initiative to abolish bilingual education will have an impact in our state. The State Education Department is now requiring that all bilingual students take the Regents’ English exam for high school graduation. Furthermore, the New York State Education Department is looking for ways to strengthen bilingual and free-standing ESL programs through more intensive English instruction and other initiatives, which will be presented to the Board of Regents next month.

Bilingual education makes sense not only as a remedial program to assist students in learning English, but as an enrichment program for all students to prepare themas citizens for our global economy. OTHER VOICES I strongly believe that bilingual education should be eliminated. It divides Americans by languange. It keeps immigrants in linguistic ghettos. It’s a classic case of a failed liberal dream. I would support immersion courses, in which kids are taught in English, and at the end of each day have one class that would be taught in their own language to overcome any problems they had during the day. And maybe have that program for a year. But the subjects during the day would have to be taught in English. Fact is, for generations it worked that way , and immigrants coming to this country should know that there’s no free ride. I think kids can learn English more quickly through these immersion programs than they can through a bilingual program, which just gives them a crutch of being able to speak in their own language.

– Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) I think California Proposition 227 was ill-timed and probably not well thought out. Propositions are opinion polls that don’t necessarily reflect what’s good for society as a whole. I’m delighted we don’t have such propositions in New York. About eight years ago we did away with traditional bilingual education in Long Beach because it basically segregated kids. In our two-way bilingual program you take kids who are English speaking and Spanish speaking and put them side by side and start off with a Spanish-speaking teacher and an English-speaking teacher. They are integrated in everything throughout the day. You basically have a program that gives you bilingual, bicultural kids. All the English-speaking kids do exceedingly well in English and the Spanish-speaking kids do well in English and become fully integrated. The old immigrant stories – it was a different world. If a kid couldn’t make it at 12 or 13, he was in the labor force. Now there are hardly any unskilled jobs left. It is a disservice to immigrant groups not to have ESL English as a Second Language and English-immersion programs. It goes against the principles of what we believe as Americans: a fair chance to join the mainstream.

– Elliot Landon, Long Beach schools superintendent I knew what California was doing with its bilingual education programs and that some Chicano mothers were vehemently against their kids’ learning in Spanish in school. Their children had to learn English in school, like all the other immigrants had to do. I’m a son of immigrants – first-generation Italian. The kids who came over were put right into school – and they didn’t know one word of English. In six months they were fluent. I’m working on something to increase the schooling for kids to learn English at night. You can speak any language you want at home or in the street, but English should be first in school. How do you think Proposition 227 passed? Because all those Spanish-speaking people voted for it.

– Legis. Michael D’Andre (R-St. James) Bilingual education should not be abolished. A lot of people think that bilingual means “no English.” It does not prevent children from learning English. For immigrants in the past there were other opportunities that were not so language-laden. Look at the computer industry today. Even a McDonald’s job requires some sort of English proficiency. Research has shown that if students are well-educated in their native language, then their transition to English is much easier. Criticism of bilingual education is an attempt to blame the failure of the educational system on one specific program. Bilingual education is not a deterrent to learning. It’s a question of improving the system so the education we provide is quality education, be it bilingual or monolingual or whatever. If we Americans are to be in the forefront of the global economy, we need to be very careful that the natural resources we have with bilingual children are not lost. We need to make sure that they keep those linguistic skills and that they become higher-order thinkers.

– Marie Y. Schroeder, a Haitian immigrant and director of the Uniondale school district’s second language program

Ximena E. Zate is director of the bilingual/ESL Technical Assistance Center at Eastern Suffolk BOCES. She is also an adjunct professor at Hofstra and Long Island University.

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