Battle Looms Over Bilingual Ed

Published October 1, 1997

Though widely promoted for three decades as a superior strategy for helping non-English-speaking children learn English, the consistently poor results of bilingual education programs nationwide have caused parents and educators alike to reassess the approach. Research has failed to support native-language instruction, and many school districts are trying to eliminate bilingual education in favor of more effective methods.

Grassroots opposition to bilingual education is building. In California, an “English for the Children” initiative would require all children to be taught in English and placed in English-language classrooms. Some 1.3 million California school children, 23 percent of the total, are not proficient in English. Only 5 percent of those students become proficient in English each year, leading some to question the bilingual education approach.

In Denver, the numbers are smaller, but the percentages are remarkably similar. Twenty percent of Denver public school students have limited proficiency in English. Less than 5 percent became proficient in English during the 1994-95 school year.

“Kids go into the program and never leave it,” Denver school board president Susan G. Edwards told Education Week.

In response to the apparent failure of their current bilingual education programs, Denver school officials in April developed a plan to introduce English to students more quickly and to get them into all-English classes within three years. In Massachusetts, governor William F. Weld proposed a similar plan earlier this year, with state takeover threatened for any school district that failed to move students out of bilingual education within three years. In Connecticut, Governor John G. Rowland has suggested eliminating the state’s bilingual education mandate.

The Orange County, California, school board received a one-year waiver from the state, allowing the county to eliminate bilingual education for the 1997-98 school year and instead use English for all students. Aides and after-school tutoring are available for students who need extra help. Three other California districts have been granted similar waivers, and more are expected to receive it in the coming months.

The biggest push for changes to bilingual education comes not from school officials, but from Hispanic parents, who are demanding English for their children. One group boycotted a Los Angeles school for two weeks earlier this year until administrators agreed to provide English classes. Hispanic parents in New York are suing the state to get their children out of bilingual programs.

“My grandson was in bilingual education from kindergarten through fifth grade at P.S. 377 in Bushwick,” Ada Jimenez states in an affidavit. “He is now in seventh grade and cannot read in either English or Spanish.” The boy attended Head Start in English, she adds, and did not speak any Spanish at that time.

But in California, Hispanic activists have opposed parents’ efforts, filing suit on July 28 in Sacramento Superior Court to prevent the Orange County school board from eliminating bilingual education. The district’s plan deprives students with limited English proficiency of access to equal educational opportunities, the suit argues.

Although the activists claim that Hispanic parents want their children taught in Spanish, a 1996 poll shows otherwise. The Center for Equal Opportunity polled a random sample of 600 Hispanic parents in five major cities. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the polled parents indicated that they want their children taught in English as soon as possible. More than 80 percent wanted their children’s academic courses taught in English, not Spanish.

“If someone told you that the best way to learn to play the piano was to practice your football skills, you’d probably think they were crazy,” says Jorge Amselle, the Center’s communications director. “Yet bilingual-education advocates claim that the best way to teach Hispanic children English is by teaching them in Spanish for five to seven years.”

In California, voters may determine the fate of that state’s bilingual education programs. A grassroots campaign is under way to place a referendum on the June 2, 1998 ballot to abolish bilingual education in the state. Students “shall be taught English by being taught English,” states the ballot initiative.

A recent review of the research literature on bilingual education, conducted by the National Research Council, found that native-language instruction offered no performance benefits to students. Commenting on the study’s findings, Professor Charles L. Glenn of Boston University notes that the common European model is to put all newcomers into a special one-year reception class and then to integrate them into regular classes.

Most Western European educational systems have a higher proportion of immigrant children than U.S. schools and yet, Glenn notes, “in none of them are separate bilingual classes the norm.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].