Fifth in an eight-part series. Next: Business slowly awakens to the next America. John Micklethwait writes for the Economist magazine.
Today’s learner is tomorrow’s leader.” The motto of Public School 220, which nestles beside the Long Island Expressway in Queens, N.Y., would do nicely for most New Americans.
Sooner or later, everything seems to come down to education. But many of the other notes pinned on the boards – sample: “Snowflakes are different, and so are we” – hint at the challenges of trying to teach students who between them speak 26 foreign languages at home.
Even more perhaps than the border, places like PS 220 represent the front line in the immigration debate.
All the literature for parents is translated into Chinese, Spanish and Russian. Around 40 percent of the school’s pupils come from Uzbekistan.
So many of them arrived with malnutrition and neurological problems that the principal, Athena Galitsis, set up a special center in the school to provide primary health care.
This makes the school sound a little grim; in fact, it is a heartening demonstration that public education can work. Its polite, cheerful pupils do well in tests, and morale among the teachers is high.
Most of PS 220’s virtues are simply those of good schools anywhere. Classes are organized so that pupils cooperate; parents are drawn into everything; and reading and writing in English is encouraged with an almost evangelical enthusiasm (“Drop everything and read something,” is another of Galitsis’ mottoes).
The school used to offer bilingual education in English and Russian, until parents rejected it.
Like many other teachers, Galitsis is unenthusiastic about bilingual education. English, she thinks, is the key to getting ahead. According to the polls, so do most foreign-born parents.
New York is the next target for Ron Unz, a “Silicon Valley” millionaire who was the guiding force behind California’s Proposition 227. This measure replaced bilingual education, which around half the students with poor English were receiving, with crash courses in English.
Bilingual education, originally invented as a way to steer funds to poor people in the Southwest, has always produced disappointing results. It is now merely a sop to the teachers unions.
Since bilingual education was banned in California about a year ago, test scores have risen. Even more tellingly, the students who were put on the English crash course or into mainstream classes are well ahead of those still stuck in bilingual ones (which a few students have waivers to continue).
Bilingual education is only a small part of the problem, but it is indicative of the raw deal immigrants are getting from America’s education system.
They are usually stuck in the cities with the most bloated school bureaucracies (half of New York’s budget goes to administration). In many parts of Los Angeles, the White middle class has abandoned public education.
And multiculturalist wheezes – such as social promotion, whereby children are moved up a grade even if they have failed the exams – have done immigrant children few favors.
One reform that could help is school vouchers, which would allow parents to choose their children’s school. In one recent charitable scheme, 168,000 poor New Yorkers applied for 2,500 places.
Many good teachers suspect that vouchers would amount to privatization. But the evidence suggests that good public schools have nothing to fear, and that poor people would benefit most.
Politicians have been little help. Democrats, including most Latino leaders, are unwilling to offend the teachers unions. Republicans have some bright ideas, but are often scared to use them.
Unz’s polls show that New York’s normally combative mayor, Rudy Giuliani, could surge ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton if he backed a proposition banning bilingual education, but he hasn’t.
Many right-wingers aim their fire at the main citadel of multiculturalism, higher education.
In both Texas and California, voters have abolished affirmative- action programs in universities. That may be a good thing in the long term, but in the shorter term it has made life harder for Latinos at a time when a college degree is a vital rung on the ladder of opportunity.
As far as the redoubtable Galitsis is concerned, the earlier she can start teaching children the better. The children who go to her small kindergarten outperform those that do not, but she has no space for more.
In preschool education, America still lags behind many other countries with far fewer resources.
All in all, the barriers preventing today’s learners from becoming tomorrow’s leaders still look worrying high. But immigrants have one enormous advantage: most of them desperately want to learn.