Too many of us have experienced the frustration of calling a bank, hospital or government office, only to find that we need an interpreter to speak to the switchboard operator, whose English is so minimal that he or she cannot understand third-grade English. It’s irritating enough when the operator cannot comprehend English well enough to spell the name of the person or office that you may want to get through to. It’s infuriating and even dangerous in an emergency.

English, experience tells us, is the glue that holds this polyglot society together. And common sense tells most people what a century of educating and assimilating immigrants into this country’s mainstream has shown: that a command of English is virtually a prerequisite for success in our society – to say nothing of making our justice system and economic opportunity fairly accessible to all.

But for 15 years or more, public education has been saddled with a theory that students whose mother tongues are not English will fail to learn subjects if they are taught in English. Federal education aid has provided incentives for schools to expand bilingual programs by giving institutions aid for each student put into bilingual education.

Bilingual programs offer most classes in the student’s native language, while another, somewhat related program, English as a Second Language (ESL), provides most classes in English.

Well, a new study from New York City’s Board of Education indicates that the federal theory is wrong and conventional wisdom is right. President Clinton, nevertheless, seems to back spending more federal money on bilingual programs, under legislation that reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and makes Chapter 1 (Title 1) funding available to them.

The Clinton administration should reconsider this legislation in light of the board’s study.

The study concludes that current efforts to educate many students in their native language – to the tune of more than $ 300 million a year in federal money, are deeply flawed. Even recent immigrants who arrived not speaking English and who now take most or all of their classes in English generally fare better academically than students in bilingual programs, where, in fact, little English is spoken.

The study also confirmed what many educators have suspected: that different ethnic groups place different values on English literacy, with stark differences in academic achievement. Many Chinese, Korean and Russian parents, for instance, want their children to learn English right away, in contrast to Puerto Rican parents, who want their children to speak Spanish.

Value differences among ethnic groups partly explain why Korean, Chinese and Russian students “test out” of (take a proficiency test and leave) bilingual and ESL classes faster than those whose native languages are, say, Haitian Creole or Spanish.

But the crucial findings in the study are that 79 percent of students who entered ESL classes in kindergarten tested out within three years, and then joined the regular English-speaking student population. But only 51 percent of students who entered bilingual classes in kindergarten tested out within three years.

Furthermore, students who enter the programs in higher grades were less likely to test out within three years. Only 33 percent of students who entered ESL classes in sixth grade tested out within three years, and only 7 percent of those who entered bilingual classes. In other words, the later a student enters a bilingual or ESL program, the less likely he or she is to test out in three years or less.

With America’s immigrant population growing very fast, public debate over ESL programs has intensified. But what has become clear is that standard American-English language instruction has proved indispensible in educating those who wish to become productive and law-abiding citizens.

The New York study could not have come at a better time. Let’s get these children speaking and reading English as soon as possible.

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