Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to participate in today’s discussion on federal education programs for Limited English-Proficient (LEP) students. My name is Don Soifer and I am the Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan public-policy research organization in Arlington, Virginia. My remarks will focus on the need for flexibility in the bilingual education program, and in that regard I will stress the following three points:
- Now more than at any other time in our history it is essential for young people to possess strong English-language skills. Without them students are left to fall further behind their peers with less hope of regaining lost ground the older they get.
- Bilingual education programs currently funded under Title VIIof the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) favor initial instruction in students’ native languages rather than in English. Such programs are ill-suited to provide English learners with the skills they need.
- The pending ESEA reauthorization gives Congress an important opportunity to make policy changes that will accelerate and improve the learning of English under these programs.
Before turning to these points, I would like briefly to address how my organization views the importance of learning English. If students can graduate from high school fluent in a second, or even a third language, they would certainly be in an advantageous position. Better jobs, better college educations, and increased opportunities would likely await them.
But when students are denied the opportunity to learn English, segregated in separate classrooms where they receive all of their instruction in Spanish, save for a precious few hours per week or even less, and where they learn reading exclusively in Spanish until the fifth grade, then they are receiving unfair treatment and poor education. Their aptitude to acquire a new language– an aptitude which diminishes with age — is being squandered. Parents want their children to learn English at school because without it they will be at a tremendous disadvantage in commerce, in citizenship, on the internet, in many important aspects of American life.
America’s English Learners
The U.S. Department of Education identified 3.5 million LEP students in 1996-1997, an increase from 2.1 million in 1990-91. 85% of these reside in the following ten states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, New Mexico, New Jersey, Washington and Michigan. There are bilingual education programs currently employed in all fifty states.
Three-quarters of LEP students are Spanish-speaking, which is why bilingual education is widely perceived as an Hispanic issue. The next three most common languages combined, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Cantonese, are spoken by less than 8 percent of LEP students.
Much has been written in recent years about the challenges facing America’s Hispanic young people. The 1997 status dropout rate (those not enrolled in school and who have not completed high school) among Hispanic 16- to 24-year olds was 25.3%, as opposed to 13.4% for African-Americans and 7.6% for non-Hispanic whites. The annual, or event dropout rate, which describes the proportion of students who leave school each year without completing a high school program, was 9.5% for Hispanics in grades 10-12, 5.0% for African-Americans and 3.6% for whites.
Shortcomings of Bilingual Education
Bilingual programs vary in methodology but share a common reliance on segregated instruction in students’ non-English native language. Advocates of bilingual education emphasize that in their view, children acquireEnglish more smoothly when they are first taught to read (and speak) in their native language. As a result, students can remain in these programs for seven or eight years or even longer. But the reality of the situation is that they generally learn English more slowly, later, and less effectively than their peers. Much recent scientific research suggests that children who learn a second language at a younger age can do so more effectively, more quickly, even with less likelihood of a pronounced accent. To many parents and educators, this just underscores what their common sense already makes plain. But once students reach the third and fourth grade without adequate English skills, it becomes much more difficult for them to regain the ground they have lost.
Currently, districts are given little incentive to accelerate the rate at which students gain English fluency and graduate to mainstream classrooms. When California voters last spring considered an initiative to effectively end most bilingual education in the state, one widely-cited statistic indicated that less than 7 percentof the state’s English learners had successfully graduated out of bilingual programs the previous year. Arizona state Department of Education officials report that only 4 percent of LEP students were reclassified as English proficient in 1998.
As former Representative Herman Badillo, the nation’s first Member of Congress of Puerto Rican descent and a leading proponent of reforming bilingual education, has said, “To keep children in classes where their own native languageis used in the hope that they will somehow make the transition to English after five or six years is unacceptable to us.” Bilingual education as we know it today evolved from the Bilingual Education Act of 1968. That legislation in concert with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed with the noble intention of providing equitable educationfor all.
But over the intervening thirty years the federal Department of Education has intermingled the goal of learning English with such tangential concerns as multicultural awareness and cultivating higher self esteem among students. My own review of Title VII bilingual grants has produced examples of such funded programs as:
- A four week orientation class to encourage high school students to pursue bilingual education degrees. While the need for more bilingual education teachers may seem pressing in some districts, using Title VII funds for a program of this purpose would certainly seem to detract resources and energy away from helping English learners acquire basic language skills. (Artesia, New Mexico, $220,000 2-year Program Enhancement grant, #T289P50368, p ii)
- SSOW (Summer School on Wheels) trip to the rain forests of Costa Rica to offer LEP students new experiences. “Students gained valuable insights into the rain forests, animals, volcanoes, and the aspects of life in other countries,” explains the program’s Title VII grant report. “9 of the 14 students received passing grades for the trip,” the document explains, and “overall the trip was a huge success for the children and parents and chaperones alike.” (Rocky Boy School District, Box Elder,Montana, $144,920 2-year Program Enhancement grant #T289950376, p 12.)
- Developing educational software for students to use todevelop written proficiency in Lakota (Sioux). Lakota is an oral language forwhich no standard orthography exists, so one had to be developed. The reasoning applied by the program’s Title VII personnel stated, “It is important to note that the Lakota language and Sioux culture are a part of our national heritage and programs such as this will ensure this language and culture will not be lost.” (Takini School, Howes, South Dakota, $240,039 4-year Comprehensive School grant #T90U50059, p. 13.)
It is not my intention to deride the value of promoting cultural awareness, but it should not dilute a program that Congress clearly intended to promote rapid acquisition of English. And native languages can be preserved at home without causing children to fall behind academically. While many of us have heard the call for wiser spending on education, surely programs such as these seem of dubious value.
What Should Congress Do?
In considering reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 Congress faces an important opportunity to mend these broken programs to the benefit of millions of this country’s English learners. What better way can Congress demonstrate to our Hispanic and other language minority communities that it is working to promote the success of their children than to guarantee that they are taught English as early as possible in their schooling?
Since last June, when California voters approved the “English for the Children” initiative, policymakers around the country have pursued their own measures to reform bilingual education in their schools:
- Denver and Chicago public schools have moved forward with plans to limit the time students spend in bilingual programs to three years.
- The Massachusetts Board of Education earlier this year voted to bar bilingual students from being excluded from taking the Iowa Reading Test.
- Connecticut legislators are considering limiting bilingual programs to 30 months, and also standardizing entrance and exit requirements.
- Just last month Arizona legislators passed a bilingual education reform bill which, among other things, requires parental consent to participate in bilingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, require principals to remove students from these programs within 5 days of a parent’s request, and require school districts to provide parents with detailed information in advance about their child’s bilingual or ESL program.
There are many policy prescriptions available to Congress which could substantially help America’s millions of English learners. I respectfully suggest that the subcommittee consider the following measures:
- Let parents choose how their own children learn English, and require written consent before placing a student in bilingual education. The “Parents Know Best Act” proposed by Congressmen Salmon and Tancredo would be an effective step towards achieving these modest, vital goals.
- Safeguard the right of parents to have their child immediately removed from ilingual programs upon their request.
- Limit the amount of time students spend in bilingual programs to three years or less. Secretary of Education Riley testified in February that school districts would be held accountable “for ensuring that LEP students reach the three-year accountability goal” as part of ESEA accountability provisions. Such accountability would have a significant effect on how many school districts teach English.
The subcommittee does not need me to remind it of the broad expanse of programs included in the ESEA, and it may decide that to pursue such measures appears daunting in perspective of other desired reforms. But Hispanic young people have urgent educational needs that cannot wait until the next ESEA reauthorization.
Today’s bilingual education programs such as those I have described, while designed with noble intentions, seem less concerned with successfully providing our English learners with the language skills they need than with striking a posture of concern after continuing to fail. Would we not be better off to subscribe to a bold vision of an America where everyone succeeds than to risk promoting failure by renewing such faulty programs?
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