Bilingual Education Being Sidelined

Published June 1, 2000

After 30 years and over $4 billion spent on federal bilingual education programs, the evidence has become overwhelming: Bilingual education doesn’t work, and in fact does a terrible disservice to Hispanic and other language-minority young people in our nation of immigrants.

While recent developments around the country–and reforms currently before the U.S. Congress–offer vital new opportunities for English learners, we still have a long way to go.

There are nearly 4 million English learners in schools across the United States. Three-quarters of them are Spanish-speaking. While there are many different kinds of transitional programs in place to provide them with the English language skills they need, bilingual education programs receive priority with regard to federal funds. As a result, these programs are currently in place in all 50 states.

Bilingual programs employ various techniques but share a common reliance on segregating English learners into classrooms where they are taught in their non-English native languages. Advocates of this approach contend that children can learn English more effectively after they have already acquired fluency in their native language. But students can remain in these programs for seven or eight years, or even longer. Many programs in New York City and elsewhere do not even begin teaching written English until the fifth grade.

A number of important new studies have emerged from California which demonstrate how English immersion is succeeding where bilingual education had failed. (See “New Studies Show Success of English Immersion Plan,” School Reform News, May 2000.)

California voters approved a ballot initiative in 1998 that virtually ended bilingual programs. Since then, students who were formerly in bilingual classrooms but moved into English immersion programs are thriving and have superior test results to show for it, as new reports by the San Jose Mercury News and others have shown.

In 1997, the year before the law was passed, less than 7 percent of California’s English learners learned enough English to be reclassified as proficient so that they could graduate into mainstream classrooms. As devastating as that figure is, the most recent numbers for Arizona are even worse–less than 6 percent.

The problems faced by young people in bilingual education are further exacerbated by another disturbing situation. According to recent research by the Lexington Institute, many schools abuse the rights of Hispanic and other parents by ignoring their requests to move their children into English-speaking classrooms. They even fail to inform parents that their children have been assigned to bilingual classrooms in the first place.

One Oakland, California parent who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives described how his kindergarten-aged, African-American son was placed in a classroom conducted exclusively in Cantonese. It took two years, innumerable phone calls, and a team of five lawyers to finally move his son to a classroom taught in English, the only language he had ever spoken.

While young Travell DeShawn Louie’s story is extreme, it has much in common with other cases from around the country. Last fall, the House of Representatives passed major reforms that, among other things, would require the consent of parents for children to be placed in bilingual education. A proposal by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) that the U.S. Senate adopt these essential changes is due to be considered in the coming weeks.

Secretary of Education Richard Riley recently announced he was endorsing a “Dual Language Immersion” technique currently being used in about 260 schools around the country. English learners in these programs simultaneously learn English alongside English-speaking students who are learning a foreign language. In March, Riley called for increasing the number of these programs to 1,000 over the next few years.

While dual language immersion has had success in places like the Miami public schools, many observers consider the real importance of Riley’s statement to be an acknowledgment of the failure of bilingual education. With dual language immersion, Miami has been able to significantly reduce the learning gap between native English speakers and immigrants who lack English skills. But Miami’s unique demographics and cultural factors make it an unusual example, and it is not clear that what works there will meet the same success elsewhere.

In the wake of these new developments and compelling new evidence, policymakers around the country, including Riley, have accepted the need for changing bilingual education. Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York all have taken up such reform measures, and many innovative new proposals are currently being considered. For our nation’s 4 million English learners, such change cannot happen too soon.

Russell Redenbaugh is a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is also an economist for a Philadelphia-based investment firm.