IN AMERICAN EDUCATION there is never a shortage of bad ideas. The latest one comes from the New York State Commissioner of Education, who wants to offer the state’s high school graduation examinations — called Regents’ exams — in Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Haitian-Creole, as well as in English.

His reasoning is that students should demonstrate their knowledge of mathematics, science and social studies in the language they know best. Predictably, the National Association of Bilingual Education responded enthusiastically to the proposal but insisted that these students should not be expected to pass the Regents’ examination in English.

If the principle is right, why limit it to these four languages? New York’s population includes youngsters from all over the world, who represent more than 100 different language groups. Doubtless someone will sue to demand that exams be equally available in Polish, Urdu, Tagalog, Greek, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, Swahili and Korean.

How will a multilingual policy help students? It won’t. It will hurt them. It will remove one of the incentives they have to learn English. After graduation they will not be able to find an American university that offers mathematics and science courses in Russian, Chinese, Spanish or Haitian-Creole. Nor will they be able to find a good job unless their command of English is as good as that of their native language.

Where will the state find teachers and materials, and the money, to provide advanced academic courses in mathematics, science, American and world history in Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Haitian-Creole (not to mention all the other languages)? Who will write textbooks on chemistry, geometry and physics in Haitian-Creole? In Haiti itself the language of instruction is French.

An official policy of multilingualism in the schools would not be good for American society. Every year our society adds one million or more immigrants. The one element that binds our society together is that we are able to communicate in a common language. Our society has been able to absorb tens of millions of immigrants and still retain its unity and national identity precisely because newcomers learned English. Those who do not are disadvantaged.

The victim of this policy ultimately may be public education, the winners those who advocate a voucher system. In debates about school vouchers, the trump card of the public schools has always been the argument that they have had a historic role in American life. Their defenders rightly say that the public schools have a civic mission; they are supposed to be society’s major assimilative agency. The multilinguists now propose that the public schools throw away their trump card.

This multilingual policy will seriously weaken the case for the public schools. The heavy additional costs of trying to teach math and sciences in many different languages will drain resources from other educational requirements. Most private and religious schools post higher test scores than public schools. In large part, nonpublic schools do well because they select their students, but they also thrive because of their freedom from a heavy burden of state and local regulations and mandates. Now New York State proposes making the burden even heavier.

This country maintains an extensive public school system at a cost of some $ 300 billion per year. Most Americans support the spending because they expect it will prepare the next generation for citizenship, for higher education and for the modern workplace. All of these require a mastery of English.

Why doesn’t New York — and other states — do what citizens, parents and taxpayers expect? Instead of permitting students to take their graduation examinations in a foreign language, teach them English. In fact, it would be a good idea to do a better job of teaching English to American-born students. That’s what all students need if they hope to have equal opportunity to succeed in American society. That’s what our public schools were created to do.

Diane Ravitch is a historian and a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City.

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