The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was intended to help Hispanic children learn English. But nearly 30 years later, it is clear that bilingual education has been a dismal failure.
The United States Department of Education recently reported a dropout rate of 30 percent for Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 24, more than double the dropout rate for blacks or whites in the same age group. The report also found that Hispanic students who spoke English well were far less likely to drop out than those who did not.
In 1994, a New York City Board of Education study showed that more than 90 percent of the students who started bilingual education in the sixth grade were unable to pass an English language test after three years of bilingual instruction. The students most likely to languish in bilingual classes for four or more years were Hispanic.
Despite the failure of bilingual education, the President and Congress have agreed to increase Federal financing for it to $354 million. That’s double the amount spent in 1996, and it will trigger even more spending at the state and local levels.
Moreover, the New York State Education Department is expanding such programs. In June, the state issued new guidelines for students from English-speaking Caribbean nations who speak or understand a Creole language. Many students from countries like Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and the Bahamas will be routed into bilingual classes if they score in the bottom 40 percent on an English-language test. The state has listed nearly two dozen distinct Creole languages — including Leeward Islands Creole, Kokoy, Papiamento and Bermudian Creole — that must be taught when at least 20 students who speak the language are in the same building and the same grade.
If these students had never left their countries they would have been instructed in English, which is the official language of the Caribbean nations identified by the state in this bizarre initiative. Now that they are residents of New York, they will be taught in their native patois.
Apparently, the purpose of this state initiative is not to help students learn English but to maintain their culture. If this is so, then their parents should be told about the poor track record of bilingual education and asked if they want their children enrolled in such a program. Those who want their children to learn English should be allowed to withhold consent. Under existing regulations, parents must navigate an elaborate bureaucratic process to withdraw children from bilingual education.
If schools really want to teach English to children with limited proficiency, they can look to the Middlebury College Language Schools’ intensive summer immersion program as a model. Students sign a pledge to communicate only in the new language. By summer’s end, they are as fluent as someone who has just completed a first-year college course.
Structured immersion, as this approach is called, works so well that it is used exclusively by the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where the Pentagon teaches 24 different languages to more than 3,000 students each year. Last year, the City University of New York established six English-immersion centers, in which students study English intensively for 25 hours a week to prepare them for college-level classes. Many students in the university’s English immersion program are New York public school graduates whose language skills are so poor that they are not ready for college.
The United States should not be an English-only society. We should encourage the study of foreign languages in schools and universities. But unless students are fluent in English, they will not have a fair chance of graduating from high school, going to college and getting good jobs. All students should learn two languages. In this society, one of them must be English.
Diane Ravitch is a senior research scholar at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.