Article Published in The Richmond Times Dispatch
It is more essential for young people to possess good English-language skills today than ever in our history. But until the education establishment in Virginia and elsewhere abandons its widespread commitment to the fundamentally unsound practice of bilingual education, progress toward English fluency will continue to elude millions of young Americans.
There are nearly 25,000 Limited English Proficient students currently in Virginia schools. More than three-quarters of them attend school in Alexandria, and Arlington and Fairfax counties. Most learn English in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, where the goal is to teach English fluency as early as possible, to prevent children from falling behind, and according to northern Virginia school officials, most are able to graduate into mainstream classes within three years.
Unfortunately, many education policymakers here would rather see those programs replaced by bilingual education programs proven to be far less successful. Recently, state policymakers from Arizona to Massachusetts have begun to seriously question the effectiveness of bilingual education, which is found in all fifty states. But in Virginia, this trend threatens to reverse itself as a number of bilingual education “experts” have become increasingly vocal in embracing these dubious programs.
In June, California voters resoundingly rejected bilingual education and its thirty-year record of failure. It is hard to imagine a system that could make it harder for children, particularly Hispanic children, to learn English than the one they replaced. Would-be English learners were segregated in isolated classrooms, often for 5 to 7 years or even longer, where they were taught in their native language at least 75 percent of the time. Many of these “bilingual” classrooms did not even begin teaching students written English until the fourth grade. It is little wonder that only 7 percent of California’s 1.3 million “Limited English-Proficient” students were learning enough English to graduate back into mainstream classes each year.
This Fall, four Arlington County schools began a pilot program for “First Language Support.” Based on the premise that children need to be proficient in their native language before they can effectively learn English, those schools will teach half of the time in Spanish and half in English.
Among the most widely quoted studies advocating this approach is a 1997 paper by George Mason University’s Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier. But the conclusions of that study are based on results obtained from just five school districts nationwide, and seemingly fail to account for demographic and other factors which would significantly effect their findings. Prominent among the authors’ reasons for favoring bilingual programs are concerns about preserving cultural values which they feel can best be achieving by stressing the use of children’s primary languages. But the only reason children are segregated out of mainstream classrooms in the first place is because they lack the English skills they need. And native languages can be maintained and spoken at home, making intensive English-instruction in school that much more important.
A 1997 report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, found no long-term advantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language, which is the basis for most bilingual programs. And much recent scientific evidence reinforces the common sense argument that languages can generally be learned more effectively at a younger age.
President Clinton declared this Spring, “We need to do right by these kids and doing right means giving them what they need, but not keeping them trapped in some sort of intellectual purgatory where they’ll get bored and drop out of school and won’t go forward.” The Administration has said that three years in a specialized program is an appropriate maximum amount of time for students to acquire English fluency.
At the federal level and on the heels of the victory in California, the “English Language Fluency Act,” was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month. The act, championed by Congressmen Bill Goodling and Frank Riggs, seeks to reform federal bilingual education programs to help states teach English to children and give parents the opportunity to choose the best method of instruction for their children. A forthcoming GAO report on federal spending for bilingual education should also help underscore the failures prevalent there.
A key factor to growing opposition to bilingual education comes from Hispanic leadership. Herman Badillo of New York City, the first Hispanic Member of the U.S. Congress in history, recently signed an open letter which stated, “As parents, we are best suited to make choices about our children’s education, and to choose the method of English language instruction that will help them attain their goals.”
An Arizona group led by Tucson high-school English teacher Hector Ayala and parent-activist Maria Mendoza has begun to lead its own statewide campaign to end bilingual programs in that state. And the leadership of Jaime Escalante, Gloria Matta Tuchman and longtime San Francisco-area Latino Democratic leader Fernando Vega made a substantial difference in the campaign to pass the California initiative.
Bilingual education programs are starting to be challenged around the country, there is no time better than now to change them. As former Congressman and Cabinet member Jack Kemp recently suggested, “What better or more fitting way can we demonstrate to our Hispanic and other language minority communities that [we are] working to enable the success of their children than to take these innovative steps to ensure that they are taught English as soon as possible once they enter school?”
Don Soifer is Vice President of the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
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