Article published in The New York Daily News
Almost lost in the recent flurry of news from the school system has been Mayor Bloomberg’s $20 million reform of bilingual education. It’s an event that merits more attention, because while the mayor’s plan includes some positive steps, it still falls far short of what’s needed. The city’s English learners deserved more.
Part of the disappointment stems from what Bloomberg said during his campaign when he suggested bilingual education’s days were numbered. “There must be total immersion for youngsters,” candidate Bloomberg said in 2001.
But that’s not what he said last week. Instead, English learners will receive 40% of their instruction in English initially and then gradually increase, with the rest of the day taught in students’ native languages. This is an improvement over the bilingual programs in which students remain in separate classrooms and are taught exclusively in their native languages. But it’s hardly immersion.
The plan also will get programs for English learners in sync with the mayor’s new core curriculum. That’s a valuable step, because the city’s bilingual programs seem to focus on everything except what they were created for in the first place. Many offer everything from self-esteem to immigrant history to puppet shows about cultural diversity.
Meanwhile, things are getting desperate for the city’s more than 151,000 English learners. Their dropout rate is rising faster than that of any other students. In fact, according to a recent study, more drop out of school than graduate. The study also found that English learners are often pushed to pursue general equivalency diplomas instead of regular diplomas – a path that hurts not only their chances for higher education, but their future earning power as well.
This is particularly bad news for Hispanic children, who are far more likely to be placed in bilingual classes than children of other language backgrounds.
California, Arizona and Massachusetts have passed laws limiting the amount of time that students spend in transitional language programs to one year. Other states, including Connecticut, have passed three-year limits. But in New York City, less than half of English learners get out of bilingual programs within three years. Even worse, one in six is still enrolled in a segregated classroom nine years later. Something major has to change – and fast.
One thing that has changed already is that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to begin showing improvements in student achievement or face real consequences. To meet that standard, New York will have to close the learning gap between Hispanics and other students.
The success of New York’s English learners is critical to the city’s economic future. Bloomberg’s plan to beef up the curriculum and set new benchmarks for progress is a step in the right direction.
But unless the city finds a way to actually teach these children all the English language skills they need, those changes won’t make a whole lot of difference.
Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute.
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