PALO ALTO, Calif.—In 1974, the New York City Board of Education signed a federal consent decree with Aspira, a Hispanic education and advocacy group, requiring that students who speak limited English be taught almost exclusively in their native languages.
Today, this decree requiring bilingual education still governs the schooling of some 170,000 students in the five boroughs. Most students who fail a test of English competence are placed automatically in bilingual classes, in which they learn subjects like math and social studies in their native languages. They can be switched out only at a parent’s insistence. Some students linger in these classes for six years or more.
Although the seven members of New York City’s Board of Education unanimously adopted this week a basket of purported reforms, they declined to challenge that underlying court order, leaving them merely to tinker at the edges of a disastrously failed policy.
The board suggested that immigrant students should no longer automatically be placed in bilingual programs, but as advocates for these programs have already made clear, this policy certainly seems to run headlong into the court order, which requires exactly that.
The new board policy requires students to remain in bilingual programs for no longer than three years under normal circumstances. New York state law already has this time limitation, but waivers allow many districts to ignore this restriction. The meaninglessness of Tuesday’s vote is indicated by its unanimity. Real change on such a contentious issue would hardly be won by a 7 to 0 vote. In effect, the board decided to declare victory and go home, which hardly addresses the roots of the problem.
What are those roots? Our national system of “bilingual education” in New York and elsewhere has been based on the notion that immigrant students benefit from being taught for years — sometimes many years — in their native language, while they gradually learn English. Although such programs might have some plausible benefits if aimed at older, teenage immigrants, most of the country’s more than 3 million limited-English proficient students are American born, and many of the remainder arrive as infants.
Thus, the vast majority enter public schools at the age of five or six, when children can most quickly and easily learn another language; instead they are placed in native-language programs, receiving perhaps an hour of English each day. Since most of these students in question are Hispanic, the most accurate translation of “bilingual education” is Spanish-almost-only instruction.
Does teaching Hispanic students in Spanish help them learn English? In 1998 this seemingly endless debate over the efficacy of the program received a dramatic test. California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, generally replacing bilingual education with English immersion classes. Although bilingual advocates had predicted academic disaster, mean percentile scores in standardized tests for California’s 1 million Spanish-speaking students rose. For example, among second graders, the average reading score of a student classified as limited in English rose to the 28th percentile from the 19th percentile in national rankings. In math, the average score for these students increased to the 41st percentile from the 27th.
Furthermore, districts like Oceanside that diligently adhered to the new law showed the sharpest gains. In the second grade, for instance, the average reading score of students in Oceanside initially classified as limited in English jumped to the 32nd percentile from the 13th, according to preliminary state figures.
New York is waiting for the same kind of reform. But hundreds of local bilingual education teachers and activists remain vehement foes of change. Faced with pressure from bilingual activists to do nothing and pressure from the media to do something, the conflicted leaders of New York schools have decided to do nothing but call it something. Two generations of failed bilingual instruction in New York City schools should be more than enough.
Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is chairman of English for the Children, which led the campaigns to dismantle bilingual education in California and Arizona.