Debate Over Bilingual Ed Moves to Big Apple

Published November 1, 2000

A study recently released by the New York City Board of Education shows students in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs strongly outperform their peers in bilingual education programs. Students assigned to mixed programs had the weakest scores, with only one-third performing above the 50th percentile in math and only one-sixth in reading. The longitudinal report followed the progress of some 16,000 English learners since 1990.

In a recent front-page story, The New York Times reported that second grade English learners in California had dramatically improved their scores since voters there passed a proposition that effectively ended bilingual education statewide. Largely as a result of California’s subsequent success with English immersion programs, bilingual education reform has become one of the fastest moving public policy issues in the nation.

The November ballot in Arizona will carry a bilingual education reform proposition based on California’s law. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Illinois all have taken major steps to limit bilingual education. The debate now has moved to New York, with a quarter-of-a-million English learners of its own.

Among the findings reported by the New York City Board of Education:

  • 54 percent of students who entered ESL programs in kindergarten scored above the 50th percentile in reading when they reached the 7th grade, compared with under 40 percent of students who entered bilingual programs at the same time. In math, the gap was even greater: 70 percent versus 51 percent.
  • ESL students were more than 10 percent more likely to achieve English proficiency in three years than bilingual students.
  • In each of the above instances, students in mixed programs combining bilingual and ESL instruction fared worst by a substantial margin.

The study comes at a critical time as New York begins to examine its own reliance on bilingual education. A city audit last fall found that the Board of Education had no idea how English learners in bilingual programs were progressing.

“If we do not effectively evaluate the bilingual program and identify what works and what doesn’t, we cannot ensure that children who don’t speak English get the education they need and deserve,” said City Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

The Board of Education’s longitudinal report showed that one-half of the students sampled were enrolled in bilingual education programs and another one-quarter were in mixed programs. For Spanish-speaking students, 58 percent were in bilingual programs and another 29 percent in mixed programs.

According to official Department of Education documents obtained by the Lexington Institute, many of the Big Apple’s bilingual education programs seem to focus on everything but teaching English. In Community School District 4’s Ambos-a-Dos bilingual program, English learners don’t even begin to use written English in reading or language arts classes until the fifth grade. In Community School District 2’s bilingual program, an outside consultant was hired to teach students Chinese brush painting, Tai Chi, and an introduction to Chinese musical instruments.

Bilingual programs at Manhattan’s Liberty High School included such initiatives as developing multicultural awareness assessments, designing a new instrument to measure students’ self-esteem, and a faculty research project on methodology in the teaching of Chinese.

While such activities may be interesting for teachers, they seem of questionable value to English learners at such a critical time in their education. Last year, when two-thirds of the Big Apple’s fourth graders performed “below proficient” on the English Language Arts Test, there was much well-grounded concern about the poor showing by Hispanic and other language-minority young people. In the Central Harlem school district, 81 percent of fourth graders scored below proficient, as did 72 percent in East Harlem.

As former Congressman Herman Badillo and other Hispanic leaders were quick to point out, the pattern was similar in many other areas of the city with high Hispanic and other language minority populations.

“To keep children in classes where their own native language is used in the hope that they will somehow make the transition to English after five or six years is unacceptable to us,” proclaimed Badillo, the nation’s first Member of Congress of Puerto Rican descent.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email is [email protected].

For more information . . .

The New York City Board of Education’s study can be found on its Web site at