Tongue-tied in the schools: Only English spoken here

Bilingual education began as a good idea. Now it needs fixing

Javier Sanchez speaks English like the proud American he is. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the wiry 12-year-old speaks English at home, and he speaks it on the playground. He spoke it in the classroom, too — until one day in the third grade, when he was abruptly moved to a program that taught him in Spanish all but 45 minutes a day. “It was a disaster,” says his Puerto Rican-born mother, Dominga Sanchez. “He didn’t understand Spanish.” Sanchez begged the teacher to return her son to his regular class. Her request was met with amazement. “Why?” the teacher asked. “Don’t you feel proud to be Hispanic?”

Along with crumbling classrooms and violence in the hallways, bilingual education has emerged as one of the dark spots on the grim tableau of American public education. Started 27 years ago to help impoverished Mexican-Americans, the program was born of good intentions, but today it has mushroomed into a $ 10 billion-a-year bureaucracy that not only cannot promise that students will learn English but may actually do some children more harm than good. Just as troubling, while children like Javier are placed in programs they don’t want and may not need, thousands more children are foundering because they get no help with English at all.

Bilingual education was intended to give new immigrants a leg up. During earlier waves of immigration, children who entered American schools without speaking English were left to fend for themselves. Many thrived, but others, feeling lost and confused, did not. Their failures led to Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which ensured supplementary services for all non-English-speaking newcomers to America.

Armenian to Urdu. Significantly, the law did not prescribe a method for delivering those services. But today, of the funds used to help children learn English, 75 percent of federal money — and the bulk of state and local money — goes toward classes taught in students’ native tongues; only 25 percent supports programs rooted in English. That makes bilingual education the de facto law of the land.

Historically, Hispanics have been the largest beneficiaries of bilingual education. Today, however, they compete for funding with new immigrant groups whose urge to assimilate, some educators say, may be stronger. Further, not many school districts can offer classes in such languages as Armenian and Urdu. So for practical reasons, too, children of other nationalities are placed in English-based classes more often than children of Hispanics. The problem, as many see it, is that students are staying in native-language programs far too long. In a typical complaint, the mother of one New York ninth grader says her daughter has been in “transitional” bilingual education for nine years. “We support bilingual education,” says Ray Domanico of the New York Public Education Association. “But it is becoming an institutionalized ghetto.”

Learning Chinese. In theory, bilingual education is hard to fault. Students learn math, science and other “content” subjects in their native tongues, and they take special English classes for a small part of the day. When they are ready, ideally within three or four years, they switch to classes taught exclusively in English. The crucial advantage is that students don’t fall behind in their other lessons while gaining competence in English. Further, supporters claim, bilingual education produces students fluent in two languages.

That would be great, if it were true. Too often it is not. What is sometimes mistaken for dual-language instruction is actually native-language instruction, in which students hear English for as little as 30 minutes a day. “Art, physical education and music are supposed to be taught in English,” says Lucy Fortney, a third-grade teacher from Sun Valley, Calif. “But that is absolutely not happening at all.”

Assignments to bilingual programs are increasingly a source of complaint. Many students, parents say, are placed in bilingual classes not because they can’t understand English but because they don’t read well. They need remedial, not bilingual, help. Others wind up in bilingual programs simply because there is no room in regular classes. Luz Pena says her third-grade son, born in America, spoke excellent English until he was moved to a bilingual track. Determined to avoid such problems with her daughter, she registered her for English kindergarten — only to be told the sole vacancies were in the Spanish class.

In some cases, the placements seem to defy common sense. In San Francisco, because of a desegregation order, some English-speaking African-Americans end up in classes taught partly in Chinese. Chinese-speakers, meanwhile, have been placed in classes taught partly in Spanish. Presented with evidence that blacks in bilingual programs scored well below other blacks on basic skills tests, school officials recently announced an end to the practice.

Whether a child is placed in a bilingual program can turn on criteria as arbitrary as whether his name is Miller or Martinez. In Utah, federal records show that the same test scores that identified some students as “limited English proficient” (LEP) were used to identify others as learning disabled. The distinction depended on the student’s ethnic group: Hispanics were designated LEP, while Native Americans who spoke Navajo or Ute were labeled learning disabled. In New York City, where public schools teach children in 10 different languages, enrollment in bilingual education has jumped by half since 1989, when officials raised the cut-off on a reading test. Critics say that 40 percent of all children are likely to fail the test — whether they speak English or not.

Misplacement, however, is only part of the problem. At least 25 percent of LEP students, according to the U.S. Department of Education, get no special help at all. Other children are victims of a haphazard approach. In Medford, Ore., LEP students received English training anywhere from three hours a day, five days a week to 30 minutes a day, three days a week. The results? Of 12 former LEP students reviewed by education department officials, seven had two or more F’s and achievement scores below the 20th percentile. Four more had D’s and test scores below the 30th percentile. In Twin Falls, Idaho, three high-school teachers had no idea that their students needed any help with English, despite their obvious LEP background and consistently failing grades.

Poorly trained teachers further complicate the picture. Nationwide, the shortage of teachers trained for bilingual-education programs is estimated at 170,000. The paucity of qualified candidates has forced desperate superintendents to waive some credentialing requirements and recruit instructors from abroad. The result is teachers who themselves struggle with English. “You can hardly understand them,” said San Francisco teacher Gwen Carmen. In Duchesne, Utah, two teachers’ aides admitted to education department inspectors that they had no college credits, no instructional materials and no idea what was expected of them.

What all these problems add up to is impossible to say precisely, but one statistic is hard to ignore. The high-school dropout rate for Hispanic students is nearly 30 percent. It remains by far the highest of any ethnic group — four times that of whites, three times that of blacks — and it has not budged since bilingual education began.

Although poverty and other problems contribute to the disappointing numbers, studies suggest that confining Hispanic students to Spanish-only classrooms also may be a significant factor. A New York study, published earlier this year, determined that 80 percent of LEP students who enrolled in English-immersion classes graduated to mainstream English within three years, while only half the students in bilingual classes tested out that quickly. A similar study released last fall by the state of California concluded that students stayed in native-language instruction far too long. It followed an independent investigation in 1993 that called native-language instruction “divisive, wasteful and unproductive.”

Not everyone agrees. More than half of American voters, according to a new U.S. News poll, approve of bilingual education. Jim Lyons, executive director of the Bilingual Education Association, says the recent studies are flawed because they fail to measure mastery of academic content: “They don’t even pretend to address the issue of the full education,” he says. Learning English takes time, insists Eugene Garcia of the education department. “And it’s well worth the wait.”

Practical approach. The alternative to native-language instruction is to teach children exclusively in English, pulling them out of class periodically for lessons in English as a second language. Lucy Fortney taught exclusively white American-born children when she started her career 30 years ago; now her classroom is almost entirely Vietnamese, Cambodian and Armenian. “I can’t translate one single word for them,” she says, “but they learn English.”

Today, bilingual education is creeping beyond impoverished urban neighborhoods to rural and suburban communities likely to expose its failings to harsher light. Until now, no constituency has been vested or powerful enough to force the kind of reforms that may yet come with civil-rights lawsuits. “Everybody’s appalled when they find out about the problems,” says Linda Chavez, onetime director of the Commission on Civil Rights and a dogged opponent of bilingual education, “but the fact is, it doesn’t affect their kids.” That may have been true in the past. But as a rainbow-hued contingent of schoolchildren starts filling up the desks in mostly white suburbia, it is not likely to be the

case for long. A COSTLY SURGE IN BILINGUAL COURSES A growth industry About 3 million students are designated as limited English proficient (LEP), 45 percent of them in California. Some $ 156 million in federal money supports an estimated 600,000 LEP students; others are funded by states and local agencies.

Pupils enrolled in language-assistance programs (estimated) 1972 180,000 1974 541,000 1976 487,000 1978 723,000 1980 981,000 1982 1.15 mil. 1984 1.88 mil. 1986 1.95 mil. 1988 2.01 mil. 1990 2.47 mil. 1992 2.56 mil.

USN&WR — Basic data: U.S. Dept. of Education

English, Spanish and others Of the students in the nation’s two largest cities, the native languages spoken are —

New York: 1.03 million students English 84.2 percent Spanish 10.7 percent Total other: 5.1 percent Chinese 1.3 percent Russian 0.8 percent Haitian 0.3 percent Korean 0.3 percent Other 2.4 percent

Los Angeles: 632,973 students English 53.4 percent Spanish 42.7 percent Total other: 3.9 percent Armenian 0.9 percent Korean 0.7 percent Cantonese 0.4 percent Filipino 0.4 percent Other 1.5 percent

USN&WR — Basic data: California Dept. of Education; New York City Board of Education.

U.S. voters who say bilingual education programs should be continued so children don’t fall behind in other subjects: 55 percent

Voters who say bilingual education programs slow down learning English and should be eliminated: 35 percent

Even if bilingual education slows down the learning of English, is it valuable in order to preserve a student’s heritage? YES: 49 percent NO: 44 percent

Note: 53 percent of Hispanics agree.

Comments are closed.