BILINGUAL EDUCATION in New York City gets a bad rap, and deservedly so. A Board of Education report released last week confirms what many parents have known for years: Bilingual ed in New York City does an abysmal job of teaching kids English – or much of anything else. But that doesn’t mean bilingual programs should be scrapped – in the city or Long Island. It means educators must take a hard look at why thousands of immigrant children are being deprived of their right to a decent education.
The report compares the progress of children in bilingual education, where most instruction is in the child’s native language, with children in classes of English as a Second Language or ESL, where English is dominant. It shows, perhaps not surprisingly, that kids pick up rudimentary English faster in ESL classes than in bilingual classes. As a result, ESL kids move more quickly into general education. Opponents of bilingual ed say if ESL is cheaper and better, why saddle immigrant kids – or the taxpayers – with expensive, ineffective bilingual education programs?
But there’s less to the report than meets the eye. A large body of research by nationally recognized scholars comes to a contrary conclusion: Bilingual ed, in the long run, works better than ESL. ESL kids may learn enough English quickly to pass a simple proficiency test. That doesn’t mean they’ve attained a level of proficiency that allows them to write, think and study in all-English classes. When kids are mainstreamed too quickly, they often fall hopelessly behind and end up as dropouts.
In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration commissioned a bilingual education study that came up with some astonishing results. The four-year study of more than 2,000 students found that children enrolled in total immersion classes in English actually learned less English in the long run than children in bilingual programs. It also found that children in bilingual education did better in other academic subjects than children who were quickly mainstreamed.
Why these surprising results? Kids in ESL get a quick hit of English. That’s enough to get by on the playground or in a store. But, as George Mason University professor Virginia Collier found in a study of upper-middle-class immigrant children in Fairfax, Va., it takes five to seven years for kids to be proficient enough to study all academic subjects in English. Children who have missed math, science and history classes in their native language for all that time never catch up. Furthermore, children who have a solid knowledge of the grammar and structure of their own language learn English faster and better than kids who are illiterate in their native tongue.
That’s the rationale behind bilingual education. The problem is that there’s a big gap between theory and practice in New York. Too many bilingual teachers simply don’t speak English well. Many aren’t particularly good at teaching any subject – in any language. There simply aren’t enough competent teachers for all the 154,000 kids enrolled in the city’s bilingual programs.
The answer? New York University education professor Dennis Sayers says both public and private universities must devote more time and money to training bilingual teachers. School Chancellor Ramon Cortines should see what New York City can learn from successful bilingual programs around the country.
Our country needs educated citizens who are fluent in more than one language to remain competitive in a global economy. We should look at kids who speak a foreign language as a resource to be cultivated – not a burden to be shouldered reluctantly. We can’t afford to let them drop out of school. Bilingual education must be overhauled, not abandoned.