With the debate over the “failure” of bilingual education in New York City heating up, many critics seem more bent on slinging misinformed mud than sorting out the facts of what has happened with the program over the past 25 years.

This column reported last week that it was the Board of Education’s massive failure to educate Hispanic children throughout the 1950s and 1960s that prompted Aspira, a Puerto Rican youth agency, to sue the city in federal court.

The civil rights suit led in 1974 to what is called the Aspira consent decree, ordering the city to establish both bilingual and English as a second language classes for Hispanic children, so Latino pupils could “effectively participate and learn.”

The decree remains the law today. Those who want to radically alter or dismantle bilingual education in this town know very well they must make their case in federal court ? not in front of some lame-duck mayor’s shotgun Bilingual Task Force.

The consent decree required that Spanish-surnamed children who scored in the lowest 20th percentile ? were in the bottom 20% ? on an English proficiency test had to then take a test in Spanish. If the Spanish score was higher than the English score, that is, if the child was dominant in Spanish, the school had to provide bilingual or ESL classes until the child’s English was good enough for mainstream courses.

In ESL, children learn all day in English, or are pulled out of mainstream classes for a few hours of intensive English training.

Bilingual classes, on the other hand, conduct instruction in math or social studies in the native language, and students also spend part of the day in intensive English instruction.

School officials and the teachers’ union fought the bilingual program every step of the way, and Aspira returned to court several times with contempt motions.

One of those who fought the hardest was Frank Macchiarola, who became schools chancellor in 1978. Macchiarola unilaterally lowered the cutoff mark to the 10th percentile in 1982, until Aspira got the federal judge overseeing the decree to return to the 20th percentile standard.

“We fought on a couple of issues,” Macchiarola conceded. “I think [Aspira proponents] were moving kids [into the program] that shouldn’t be moved in, and I gave them a lot of trouble.”

Macchiarola said he gradually concluded that “ESL was a much better solution” because bilingual programs segregated immigrant children from other children.

Meanwhile, the United Federation of Teachers was battling changes in teacher certification that would create the new category of bilingual teacher.

Even today, many bilingual and ESL teachers complain that the UFT treats them as second-class teachers.

So those who argue that the school bureaucracy eagerly sought to expand bilingual programs as a result of the Aspira consent decree are simply rewriting history.

What did lead to a mushrooming of the bilingual program were little-noted changes in state law several years later.

In 1988, the state upped the cutoff mark for children from the 20th to the 40th percentile and it did not require that children be tested in their native language, as the Aspira decree did. So it became possible for a child who was fluent in English to score, say, in the 35th percentile, and, simply because he had a Spanish or Chinese surname, be placed in a bilingual or ESL class.

At the same time, the state increased its subsidy for those classes, creating a financial incentive for school districts to inflate their numbers of “English language learners.”

In New York City, for instance, the number of those pupils jumped from 94,000 in the 1988 school year to 110,000 in 1989, and it kept ballooning. During the 1995 school year, there were a record 187,000.

But by the mid-1990s, many Latino parents began protesting that their children were being placed in bilingual classes even though they spoke English. In response, Chancellor Rudy Crew and the state Department of Education, with Aspira’s help, instituted major reforms.

Instead of using foreign surnames to trigger testing, they devised a tough questionnaire about home language use. Only if a foreign language was regularly spoken in the home was the child to be tested.

In four years, the number of English language learners has dropped by more than 20,000.

Last year, there were 159,000 children in bilingual or ESL classes, split almost evenly.

Of those, the three biggest groups are Hispanic, at 64%; Chinese, 10%, and Russian, 3.4%.

Although Hispanic children are clearly the biggest group, their number is a small part of the system’s huge Hispanic pupil population. Of 418,000 Hispanic pupils, 75% are in regular classes, 12% are in ESL classes and only 13%, about 56,000, are in actual bilingual classes.

Despite the claims of the opponents of bilingual education, many of those children are making extraordinary progress, as we shall see next.

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