At long last, after a detailed report by the Board of Education and a contentious City Hall hearing last week, the mayor and the schools chancellor have acknowledged that bilingual education fails students. But neither has mustered the moxie to do what must be done: scrap bilingual ed once and for all. Instead, they are desperately trying to salvage the unsalvageable – and are considering a politically correct alternative. That’s a copout.
Currently, city schools use two methods for teaching immigrant children – bilingual ed, which is taught in their mother tongue, and English as a Second Language, where English is predominant. By virtually every measure, pupils in bilingual education fare worse.
The failure begins the very moment kids enter school. Of the youngsters who begin bilingual ed in kindergarten, only 73% are mainstreamed after three years, the state-set deadline. For ESL students, the figure rises to 84%. Not great, certainly, but enough to see that ESL is superior. And the longer students remain in bilingual classes, the worse they do.
Yet non-English speakers are automatically enrolled in bilingual courses unless there is no program at their school. In that case, kids take ESL classes but are shifted to bilingual as soon as possible. The results are disastrous. Consider this: Only 20% of youngsters who receive instruction in a mix of the two methods beginning in first grade are ready for English-only instruction three years later.
The justification for this abominable mix-and-match approach has nothing to do with education and everything to do with bureaucracy. It is based, the Board of Ed study revealed, on “administrative exigencies, such as having insufficient numbers of students to form bilingual classes one year but not the next.”
That should be reason enough to scrap the program. But instead, it is mandated for all kids who achieve below the 40th percentile on a special language test. The requirement is enforced by a consent decree initially aimed at Spanish-speaking youngsters, who make up the majority of the program – and, ironically, suffer most from it.
Spanish-speaking pupils in all grades do worse in bilingual classes than those in the ESL program. And, in the end, only 30% of Spanish-speakers in bilingual ed were able to pass the English Regents exam last year – 10% less than those in all other language groups.
Despite these failures, bilingual education continues to be, as former Chancellor Ramon Cortines put it, “protected by a highly organized, politicized group of people.” So instead of pulling the plug on a clearly inferior program, Mayor Giuliani is recommending that students remain in the bilingual program only two years, and his task force is pushing a “third alternative” – language immersion.
That is the method adopted by California, which banned bilingual ed two years ago. Its intensive English-only approach has produced increases in test scores at all levels. Schools Chancellor Harold Levy speaks highly of this approach. But if past is prologue, it won’t work in New York when it has to compete for resources with a bilingual-first policy.
Two years ago, a Zogby International poll found that 79% of those surveyed supported legislation requiring “all public school education to be conducted in English.”
It is way past time to make that happen. Ending bilingual education is not anti-immigrant. It is exactly the opposite. And anybody who cares more about kids than about political pandering knows it.