IN THE NAME of “cultural sensitivity,” we are systematically undereducating our language-minority children, severely reducing their opportunities for economic and social advancement. The politics of ethnicity — and in particular, pressure to continue the widely applied experiment called bilingual education, in which children are taught not in English but in their native language — has distorted public-education policy and limited the search for alternatives.

In the 22 years since bilingual education began, the number of different languages represented in schoolrooms nationwide has grown to 153, and the programs have become the single most controversial area in public education. No wonder: They segregate limited-English children, provide them inferior schooling and often doom them to unskilled jobs as adults.

Yet bilingual programs continue to increase, despite striking evidence of their failure:

In November 1988, Con Edison, the public utility company of New York City, gave an English-language aptitude test to 7,000 applicants for entry-level jobs. Only 4,000 passed — and not one of those was a graduate of the city’s bilingual education programs. Yet a coalition of ethnic activists recently succeeded in convincing the state Board of Regents to pass new regulations that will keep more limited-English children enrolled for more years in native-language classrooms.

In Los Angeles, which has the largest enrollment of limited-English students in the country (142,000), a survey of teachers in 1988 revealed that they are opposed to bilingual education by a margin of 78 to 22 percent. These results have been ignored and a bilingual master plan imposed on the Los Angeles schools that requires even more teaching in the native language.

In New Jersey last year the state Board of Education announced that limited-English students may take the test of basic skills required for high school graduation in any of 12 languages. What the board didn’t explain is how a student who has passed math and science tests only in Arabic, for example, can possibly use that knowledge to get a job in our English-speaking society or to qualify for college entrance.

The U.S. Department of Education — despite its own studies showing that bilingual education fails the very children it is meant to help — continues to direct the major portion of federal funding for language-minority children into these same bilingual programs.

Millions of children are affected, and their numbers are growing much faster than the rest of the school population. Estimates range from 1.5 to 7.5 million — from 5 to 20 percent of the total enrollment. The most recent survey by the DOE in May 1989 reports that from 1985 to 1988, enrollment of limited-English students in kindergarten through 12th grade increased by 7.1 percent while total school enrollment nationwide declined by 1.3 percent. Out of a total school population of 39.2 million in kindergarten through 12th grade, the number of limited-English students is reported to be 1,533,520 or 5 percent. But the survey acknowledges that the actual number may be three to six times that many. Five states reported that as many as 22.5 percent of all their schoolchildren are not able to use the English language well enough to benefit from regular classroom teaching in English.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was designed to remove language barriers to learning. Access to an equal education was the primary goal and early mastery of English was seen as the key to such access. The act mandated three years of study under a new initiative called bilingual education, which was expected to help students learn English faster, develop self-esteem and master subjects for grade-promotion and high school graduation. [See box.] These presumed benefits were entirely hypothetical; there was no evidence that such results would actually occur.

Bilingual advocacy groups soon began to exert pressure at the state level for public schools to provide support for maintaining students’ native cultures as well. In some instances, the original program title was changed to “bilingual/bicultural education.” Often schools were urged to hire only teachers of the same ethnic background as the students. Instructors from the Dominican Republic, it was argued, could not “relate” to Puerto Rican students. There were repeated efforts to amend state laws to keep students in bilingual classes beyond the three years originally mandated.

In many cases, political pressure changed what was to have been a temporary, “transitional” program into a permanent vehicle for developing students’ native language and culture at the expense of English-language learning and integration into mainstream classrooms. “The most significant thing about bilingual education is not that it promotes bilingualism,” says Stanford University bilingual advocate Kenji Hakuta, “but rather that it gives some measure of official public status to the political struggle of language minorities, primarily Hispanics.” Facing Up to Failure

The two basic premises of bilingual education are that it will make minority children equally literate in two languages while at the same time preserving their cultural identity. Neither in fact is the case.

For two decades, federal- and state-funded bilingual education programs throughout the country have failed to prepare language-minority children for high school graduation, much less for jobs or higher education. Moreover, they have conspicuously failed to reduce the extraordinarily high drop-out rate for Latino students — between 40 and 50 percent nationwide, compared to 25 percent for African-Americans and 14 percent for non-Hispanic whites, according to the National Association for Bilingual Education.

As a classroom teacher of fifth- and sixth-grade Hispanic students in Springfield, Mass., I found that most of these children had not just arrived from another country but had lived on the U.S. mainland most of their lives. Yet after five or six years in bilingual classrooms, they were able neither to do math or reading at the proper grade level in Spanish nor to master the English-language skills they needed. My experience was representative of the conditions in other school districts. A study of the Boston Public Schools’ bilingual program completed in 1986, for example, revealed that over 500 Hispanic students who had been in bilingual classrooms since kindergarten were not able, on entering seventh grade, to take classes in English.

When students are taught in Spanish a substantial part of each day, Spanish is the language they will know well, not English. This is not surprising. Educators call it the “time on task” concept — the proven link between the amount of time spent studying anything and the degree of success in learning it.

Two multi-year research projects conducted for the Department of Education in school districts with large Hispanic populations confirm this common-sense principle. In Dade County, Fla., and El Paso, Tex., language-minority students were divided into two groups: One was taught entirely in Spanish; the other received all instruction in an English-language “immersion” program. [See box.] Each study showed the same result. Both student groups attained the same levels in math, science and social studies. But the immersion students were far ahead in English speaking, reading and writing skills. Furthermore, in both cases researchers found no evidence of greater self-esteem on the part of the students taught in their native language.

Across the nation, classroom teachers have learned firsthand how unsuccessful bilingual programs are. But they rarely speak out for fear of being labeled “racist.” Now, however, even supporters of bilingual programs are realizing that linguistically separate education of minority students for most of the school day is difficult to reconcile with our commitment to integrate schools along racial lines.

Indeed, such programs can provoke ethnic discord. As early as 1977, Alfredo Mathew Jr., a pioneer in bilingual education, warned that “while bilingualism, from a political point of view, is meant to foster the Puerto Rican/Hispanic identity and consequently encourages concentrations of Hispanics to stay together and not be integrated, one also has to be wary that it not become so insular and ingrown that it fosters a type of apartheid that will generate animosities with others, such as blacks, in the competition for scarce resources, and further alienate the Hispanic from the larger society.”

Continued exclusive reliance on bilingual programs is also incompatible with another national goal — increased economic competitiveness. In the next 20 years, at least half the new workers entering the labor force will be minorities. U. S. companies depend upon well-educated workers; but many fear that the new workforce will lack even basic skills. Young people are doubly at risk if they have neither the ability to communicate adequately in English nor the literacy and numeracy skills they need for good jobs. The ability of minority populations to use the language of the majority society is linked directly to their individual opportunity and thus, most basically, to social justice. Education and Equity

Certainly other factors besides language contribute to the failure of language-minority students, including poverty, family instability and overt discrimination. These students need more supervision and opportunity in their lives and more special help in their schooling if they are to overcome their disadvantages. They need early and intensive help not only in learning the language of the schools and society but in mastering the subject matter of math, science, history and information technology. Certainly no one argues that these students should be subjected to the old “sink or swim” policies of neglect that earlier ethnic groups experienced.

But neither should we confine them only to traditional bilingual education, given America’s astonishing diversity of cultures. To propose that one program can successfully meet the needs of such disparate communities as Cambodians, Navajos, Vietnamese and Russians is either naive or willfully misleading. Spanish speakers alone comprise many distinct communities from more than three dozen countries in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, with members in all economic and social levels. Their goals may be equally diverse.

A recently published national survey of Asian, Cuban, Mexican-American and Puerto Rican parents of limited-English students reveals their very different attitudes. Asians (whose numbers rose 70 percent during the 1980s) are the most likely to cite learning English as one of the three most important objectives of schooling and give a much lower priority to the teaching of the home language in school than the other three groups. Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans are more likely than Asian or Cuban parents to want their children in native-language programs and to expect schools to teach the history and customs of their ancestors. Asian and Cuban parents tend to believe that this is the family’s responsibility. Keeping the Commitment

Clearly, we need to give parents and educators a range of alternatives — as well as the right to choose the most effective approaches for their communities and the power to assign public funding to support their choices.

One highly effective alternative has been promoted by Canada and Israel: second-language learning by the technique of “immersing” students in the new language as early as age 5. [See box.] This method requires trained teachers and a special curriculum. Comparable “early immersion” programs in the United States are operating successfully in El Paso and Uvalde, Tex.; Arlington and Fairfax, Va.; Berkeley and San Diego, Calif.; Elizabeth, N.J. and Newton, Mass. They use new language teaching techniques that include early immersion in the English language. The aim of these programs is not primarily the strengthening of the student’s native language but is instead pragmatic and double-barreled: Early and intensive English-language instruction together with strong emphasis on computation, analytical mathematics, biological and earth science, history and the study of different cultures.

One of our most urgent social obligations of the ’90s is to ensure that our language-minority children have educational opportunities equal to those of their English-speaking classmates. In addition to our fostering respect for each child’s ethnic culture and language, limited-English children must be given the means and the motivation to complete a high school education and to prepare for productive work or for higher education and professions. Such motivation comes only from real achievement. That means putting aside the segregative and inadequate program of bilingual education and replacing it with a rich, content-filled education in English, the empowering language of our society.

Class Actions

IN A TRANSITIONAL bilingual education program, a typical day for a Spanish-speaking child newly arrived in a Boston classroom includes the teaching in Spanish of reading, writing, math, science, U.S. history and something of the culture of the child’s native land.

A 30-to-45-minute English-language lesson is provided, and occasionally a lesson in art, music or physical education in a combined class with English-speaking children. Over the course of three years, the use of English in teaching is gradually increased, in the expectation that eventually the student will be able to work in a regular English-language classroom. Such programs necessarily require teachers with native fluency, native-language textbooks (in each subject for each language group) and the separation of students for three years or longer.

The same child entering an “English Immersion” program in Fairfax, Va., however, has a very different experience. From the first day, at least three hours are spent with a special teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) for intensive lessons in speaking, reading and writing English — lessons focused on the vocabulary and concepts of math, science and other subjects, along with some of the history and culture of the student’s native land. The student spends the rest of the day in a regular classroom with English-speaking students. The expectation is that within a few weeks the student will learn enough English to participate in mainstream math classes, and in two years, on average, will be able to do all schoolwork in English.

Immersion programs do not require a separate teacher for each language group. Children from different language backgrounds are taught together. This multicultural feature, combined with extensive classroom hours spent with English-speaking students, provides the highest level of integration and affords the best opportunity for acquiring and using English.

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