Most experts agree that bilingual education has been a major failure in American public schools – holding back many minority students, while failing to prove the putative value of its “transitional” role to learning all subject matter in English.
The strange, sometimes bizarre story of how America came to fall into this pedagogic tar pit is instructive, as officials at both the state and federal levels make attempts at extrication.
For generations of immigrants to America, learning English was the first – and most significant – step in assimilation. The regimen was strictly sink or swim.
Children who spoke only Italian or Mandarin Chinese or Russian were placed in classrooms where the instruction was entirely in English.
Gradually, they learned through total immersion – the method for learning a new language still favored by academic orthodoxy and in use around the globe. For example, the polyglot immigrants arriving daily in Israel are taught Hebrew in Hebrew.
However, in the 1960s conditions began to change in America.
The history of how this change evolved is examined in a recent publication from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution titled “Bilingual Education: A Critique” by Peter Duignan. Basically, the booklet documents yet another benighted example of political good intentions gone awry.
In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the federal government began the process of desegregating public schools across the nation.
Four years later, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was envisioned as a Great Society program to uplift the children of the poor and “Americanize” immigrants. The act’s intent was that English should be taught as a second language only until the student could transfer to mainstream, all-English classes.
But what had been conceived as time-limited transitional aid quickly evolved into an entitlement with “multicultural” overtones.
Some academicians posited the notion that as many as six or seven years might be needed as a reasonable span for transition.
So, as Duignan puts it, bilingual education quickly “created a new political lobby of bilingual supervisors, aides, counselors, instructors, publishers of textbooks, producers of films, tapes and other aids and professors in education providing courses in bilingual education. “
Thus, a new entitlement spawned a new industry with powerful new advocates and political allies.
Nationally, there are 2.6 million students currently enrolled in bilingual classes; in Massachusetts the figure is about 45,000 or 5 percent of the school population. That is a strong constituency.
So strong, in fact, that attempts in the Massachusetts Legislature to reform the bilingual statute in recent years have failed repeatedly in spite of a lack of any evidence that the program provides tangible benefits.
In fact, most of the available data suggest otherwise.
For example, after three decades of bilingual education, the high school dropout rate among Hispanics continues to hover at about 30 percent in the 1990s. Meanwhile, since 1975, the rate for black non-Hispanics has dropped from 22.9 percent to 12.6 percent and the rate for white non-Hispanics has fallen from 11.4 percent to 7.7 percent.
Newly appointed state Education Commisioner David P. Driscoll correctly puts bilingual education reform among his top priorities for this year.
“We can either try to get a change in the law – which hasn’t been successful – or another approach would be to ask for waivers from the Legislature,” Driscoll said.
Under that plan, the Legislature would amend the law to allow the education commissioner to grant parent-approved waivers to school districts in order to give them more flexibility in educating students with limited English – as determined by standardized testing.
Districts could choose among five models, including traditional “Transitional Bilingual Education” wherein students receive instruction in all required subjects in their native language as well as English, with an emphasis in transitioning students to English-only classes within three years.
The problem is that about 20 percent are not transitioned out in three years – and contribute to a disproportionately high dropout rate down the road.
The other instructional models that would be authorized under Driscoll’s plan include the following.
Content-based English as a Second Language: Periods of instruction structured around academic content, rather than generic English-lanaguage skills – also know as “structured immersion. ” This is somewhat akin to the method used before the 1960s.
English as a Second Language: Periods of instruction focused on the development of English language skills, rather than academic content.
Developmental Bilingual Education: Students receive instruction in all required subjects in their native language as well as English, with an emphasis on maintaining native language and culture as well as grade-level attainment in English. This is the multicultural model.
Two-way Bilingual Immersion: A program in which some (ideally half) of the students are native speakers of English and the others speak a single native language other than English. This promising interactive program already is in place in four Worcester public schools.
Thus, there are attractive alternatives to the formal Transitional Bilingual Education model.
As Driscoll properly points out, beginning with the class of 2003 education reform mandates that all Bay State public school students must pass the 10th grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests in four core subject areas in order to graduate from high school.
That requirement applies to students whose first language is not English, as well as all others.
So giving school districts as much bilingual flexibility as possible as early as possible is vital to the immediate future of thousands of students.