Bilingual Barrier?

Have three decades of bilingual education helped or hindered non-English-speaking students?

The American experiment in bilingual education began in 1968, when Congress mandated $7.5 million to teach Mexican-American public-school students English. A generation later, federal, state and local bilingual programs have burgeoned into an $8 billion enterprise – which for the first time in three decades is facing a serious challenge from a cheaper and, many say, more effective approach called “English as a Second Language,” or ESL.

Bilingual education – presently used with 55 percent of the country’s 3 million non-English-speaking students – mandates that teachers instruct young people in their native languages while they learn English over a seven- to nine-year period. Critics contend that this method not only coddles students but segregates them by language and background: Some have labeled bilingual education “separatist movements in disguise.” The Clinton administration supports bilingual education, although the White House included no specific plans for it in its wide-ranging education program, Goals 2000. A House subcommittee has proposed cuts of 75 percent in bilingual education-related programs – from $195 million to $53 million – budget cuts President Clinton has promised to veto.

The issue is important because of America’s growing number of young people whose first language is not English – a segment of the student population that has increased by 20 percent during the last five years, especially in California, Florida, New York and Texas. Financially pressed California spends $400 million annually on its bilingual programs. New York City – where programs exist in Bengali and Haitian Creole – spends $300 million. Interestingly, only 43 percent of limited-English students are immigrants; the rest are native-born Americans.

As federal and state governments look for ways to trim budgets and cut education costs, ESL, which has been around about as long as bilingual education, is looking more attractive. Bilingual programs cost twice as much as ESL programs – primarily because bilingual education requires foreign-language textbooks and teachers qualified to teach math, social studies and other courses in foreign languages. ESL, on the other hand, aims not only to “mainstream” children but help them achieve fluency in two or three years.

Educators label ESL programs as “immersion” experiences. Students who speak a variety of primary languages are grouped together under specially trained instructors whose goals are twofold: teaching students English as quickly as possible and assimilating them into an English-speaking society. The teachers guide students in vocabulary, supplying words and definitions when necessary, and students are urged to talk and participate.

According to Patricia Whitelaw-Hill, executive director of Research in English Acquisition and Development, or READ – a Washington think tank that favors ESL – the prolonged use of a native language in bilingual programs is “a major disservice” to the students stuck in English courses for eight or nine years. “It is at odds with learning English in the long run,” she says. New York’s Department of Education conducted a four-year study, published in 1994, of the city’s non-English-speaking students. The report, termed “preliminary,” found that ESL students successfully exited their programs at a greater rate – 79 to 51 percent – than their bilingual counterparts.

Rick Lopez, associate director for policy and public affairs at the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, criticizes the New York report for failing to test students in all subjects, not just English fluency. “It is a very narrow focus to test in English and nothing else – and to judge on the basis of how fast English is taught,” he says. Lopez and others point to a 10-year study published in 1991 by the U.S. Department of Education which found that students of bilingual programs fared better in English courses – and in math and science as well – than those in ESL programs.

But the New York report did suggest a problem that bilingual education hasn’t solved – and which may be insoluble: the shortage of qualified teachers. In Texas, for example, the Houston Independent School District is still smarting from a recent disclosure that nearly 100 bilingual teachers had falsified teaching credentials – or hardly spoke English at all. The Los Angeles school district, which employs only one qualified bilinguist for every 112 students who need English training, is offering sizable bonuses – up to $5,000 – for qualified teachers. In New York, where public-school students speak 90 different languages, bilingual education is out of the question for many.

Recently, the Massachusetts Legislature rejected a proposal by Republican Gov. William Weld that would have put a cap of three years on the amount of time students may spend in the state’s bilingual-education programs. A recent article in the newsletter of the 240,000-member California Teachers Association, however, indicates weakening support for bilingual education – or at least a willingness to consider alternatives such as ESL. The story, which attacked opponents of bilingual education, nonetheless admitted that bilingual programs are probably responsible for condemning “tens of thousands” of California students to unnecessarily long periods of language training.

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