In one of the year’s most underreported stories, on March 15, Education Secretary Richard Riley announced that the cure for Hispanic students’ high dropout rate is to educate them in Spanish! Riley called for the creation of 1,000 “dual-language” (read: Spanish-language) schools during the next five years. The secretary argued that bilingual education, or BE – which he referred to euphemistically as “dual-language instruction” and “two-way immersion” – had been documented as having helped Hispanic kids excel in school, “preserve heritage, and promote the bilingualism needed in a global economy.”
In truth, BE is the greatest method ever devised to arrest language acquisition.
Poor, huddled masses the world over still see America as freedom’s last, best hope. Prior to the infliction of BE in the late 1960s, millions of immigrant children and American-born children of immigrants had learned English through the immersion method, in which one spends all, or almost all, of one’s class time learning in English. In the United States, immersion traditionally has been practiced in English as a Second Language, or ESL, programs.
In a speech at Bell Multicultural School in Washington, Riley insisted that students’ “primary language” read: Spanish ability be seen as an “asset,” not a limitation, and proclaimed the necessity of being “bi-literate” to compete in the global marketplace.
Riley was selling “globaloney,” with a little Orwellian spice. The language of the global marketplace is English. And increasing numbers of American children of Hispanic immigrants come from families that are illiterate in Spanish. What kind of an “asset” is that?
The bilingual movement began during the 1960s, when Hispanic activists insisted that it was politically and pedagogically unacceptable to immerse Hispanic children in the English language. Although there was no evidence that BE worked, the activists succeeded in institutionalizing it through the 1968 Bilingual Education Act.
According to BE activists’ initial public pronouncements, students would begin by spending equal amounts of class time using their “primary” (i.e., their parents’) language and English. After two or three years, they would be mainstreamed into classes that were taught primarily or exclusively in English. In practice, however, BE students have spent 80-100 percent of their time learning in a foreign language, often for their entire school careers. But you only can learn English through English! For scholarly evidence of “two-way’s” efficacy, Department of Education, or DOE, spokeswoman Melinda Ulloa referred me to the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, or CAL. While aggressively supporting BE, CAL provides no proof that it works.
Rosalie Pedalino Porter, the founder and former president of the Washington-based READ (Research in English Acquisition & Development) Institute and a national authority on bilingualism, told me Riley’s plan is “not a bad idea for an experiment, but it should not be promoted wholesale. He shouldn’t pretend to parents that this is a proved, successful method that is going to work for immigrant children. I don’t know of a school yet, that documented a dual immersion BE program in which all children learned both languages.”
All available evidence shows that, rather than producing bilinguals, BE produces “non-linguals” who are not fluent in any language.
From 1990-94, New York City’s pro-BE Board of Education conducted a longitudinal study of three-year exit rates into normal English classes for “limited English proficiency,” or LEP, children. Children placed in ESL classes had a 54 percent to 373.9 percent higher success rate, respectively, than peers who were placed in BE classes. Children placed in ESL in kindergarten had a 54 percent higher success rate than peers placed in BE; second-graders had a 205.4 percent higher success rate; and sixth-graders had a 373.9 percent higher success rate.
In a sworn affidavit published in the anthology, The Failure of Bilingual Education, retired Brooklyn assistant high school principal Edwin Selzer testified that “once a child was in a bilingual education program, he i was never mainstreamed into regular English-speaking classes.” Selzer reported, too, that “many students graduating from Eastern District High School were illiterate in both Spanish and English.”
CAL, which would have all children spend at least six years in a bilingual environment, calls its preferred BE method “90-10,” as in 90 percent Spanish and 10 percent English. That’s a novel way of redefining, “two-way.”
Ulloa told me, “The secretary is referring to one approach not just for immigrant children, but for native-born children.” Ulloa also noted, “Research and studies show that the earlier you acquire a language, the better.” In other words, the secretary of education and CAL are looking to extend a method that has been proven to retard Hispanic children’s linguistic and intellectual development, to all public-school children.
Bilingual activists apparently subscribe to the political philosophy that, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Nicholas Stix, a veteran teacher of English as a Second Language, writes on educational and urban issues from New York.