Let’s be honest about bilingual education: It has failed our city’s children and needs fundamental reform.
The passionate rhetoric by well-meaning advocates cannot obscure this reality: More than half the city’s non-English-speaking students do not learn enough English in three years of bilingual education to move into mainstream classrooms. That shocking statistic comes not from some right-wing think tank, but from the Board of Education itself ? which, for the first time ever, recently released data on the efficacy of its bilingual programs.
When I was appointed chairman of the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education over a year ago, I was surprised to learn the board had never compiled such data about the more than 170,000 students in its bilingual programs. Now, there is no hiding the hard facts that the board’s own report reveals.
New York State requires that students move out of bilingual programs within three years, yet most of our students do not. In addition, more than 85% of students who entered bilingual education in ninth grade still could not pass standard English tests six years later.
Nevertheless, there is a road to reform, and the board’s own data show the way. The board basically offers two bilingual education models: a traditional program where students are taught in the language they speak, and a limited English-immersion program, known as ESL or English as a Second Language, where students receive up to three hours of English instruction each day.
The board’s data prove that English immersion works best for young students. Nearly 44% of kindergartners in ESL classes move into the mainstream after one year, nearly 61% do so within two years and a whopping 84% do so within three. In contrast, traditional bilingual programs have a far lower success rate, lagging 11% behind after the first year, 14% after the second and 11% after the third as well.
These results speak for themselves. If parents of non-English-speaking children want them to enter mainstream classrooms as quickly as possible, they should choose English immersion over traditional bilingual programs. Yet most do not know they have a choice. Too often, children are simply routed into traditional bilingual programs, which remain the dominant methodology.
That is shameful enough, but even more shameful is the absence in our system of a true English immersion model where students are taught only in English for the entire class day. If the ESL model of up to three hours of English instruction each day is helping young students advance faster, a total English-immersion model should produce even better results.
We no longer need to speculate. Early returns in California, which barred bilingual education two years ago, show marked improvement in Spanish-speaking students’ English and math scores on standardized national tests. Even ban critics such as Ken Noonan of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, had to admit they were wrong. “I thought it would hurt kids,” he said of the ballot initiative barring bilingual education. “The exact reverse occurred.”
In New York City, such a radical change would face serious obstacles, including a court-ordered consent decree and state regulations, both requiring bilingual education as part of the curriculum available to non-English-speaking students. While we sort through those issues, however, surely we can offer parents alternatives for their children.
That is why, as a starting point, we need to implement the following reforms:
1) The Board of Education should create a true English immersion program that parents can choose for their children. Then it should track those students’ progress. If our experience is similar to California’s, they will achieve striking success. Moreover, because the older the student is upon enrollment in a bilingual program, the worse he or she tends to perform, this English-immersion model should be offered to older students as well.
(2) The board should inform parents about alternatives and their success rates, so they can make an informed choice. Too often, parents, unaware of their options, see their children enrolled in traditional bilingual programs that end up failing them.
(3) The board should implement a special review so students nearing their third year in bilingual education without success will get intensive instruction to speed their arrival in mainstream classes. It is tragic that more than 10% of students who enter bilingual programs in kindergarten remain in them 10 years later.
(4) The board must improve the quality of its bilingual-education teachers.
The issues surrounding bilingual education are about people, not politics. We cherish our diversity, but also our common purpose as a nation of immigrants. That is why we must offer parents ? and children ? alternatives to traditional bilingual education. On this issue, let us speak with one voice: the voice of reason.
Mastro, a lawyer and a former deputy mayor, chairs the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education.