Chicago, like other American cities, has seen its population evolve significantly over the past two decades. But where other urban school districts have embraced innovative strategies to adapt to such changes, the bilingual education program put into place by Chicago’s public school leadership has not shown the desired results. Instead, it has contributed to a learning gap with serious implications for the city’s future.
Chicago schools now have the nation’s third largest population of English learners, one in seven students overall. Eighty percent of them speak Spanish, and eighty percent of those children are placed in what amounts to a radical program of bilingual and multicultural education.
Meanwhile, Illinois’ Hispanic graduation rate has declined to a dismal 53 percent (compared with 84 percent for non-Hispanic whites), according to one 2003 study. Statewide, only 37 percent of Hispanic students are proficient English readers, nearly half of the total for white students.
While substantial evidence has led many policymakers around the United States to reform and roll back bilingual education, the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Language and Cultural Education has developed one of the nation’s most extreme, and ultimately counterproductive, approaches to educating English learners. School district policy limits students to a maximum of five years in bilingual programs. But many children do not develop English fluency over that period, and are simply deposited into mainstream, English speaking classes when their time is up.
Illinois requires that annual assessments be used to keep parents informed of their children’s achievement levels and progress toward fluency. Beginning in third grade, bilingual students take a yearly test called IMAGE, the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English. State officials describe it as a test given in English, but with special “accommodations” for non-English speakers. Parents are notified that their children’s test scores fell within one of four encouraging-sounding performance levels: Beginning, Strengthening, Expanding and Transitioning.
Unfortunately, the misleading nature of these labels becomes clear when their scores are compared with those on another test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, given entirely in English. Last year, among third graders who had already been in bilingual education for three years, 60 percent tested below the 34th percentile and remained in bilingual classes. Any score above the 34th percentile on the Iowa Test qualifies a child to graduate successfully from bilingual education to a mainstream, English-speaking classroom.
In light of these disturbing results, a reasonable observer might wonder what students are being taught in Chicago’s bilingual classrooms. School officials explain that, to promote the positive self-esteem of its students, bilingual programs emphasize students’ native history and culture as well as those of the United States. The Mexican Heritage Curriculum Guide developed for teachers, for instance, emphasizes such historical figures as Father Hidalgo and Emiliano Zapata the way most American schoolchildren learn about our own Founding Fathers.
But wouldn’t it better for children’s self esteem to teach them the English skills they need before they are allowed to fall any further behind? Much recent scientific evidence on children’s brain development has indicated that younger children are able to learn second languages faster and more effectively than older children. Bilingual programs, like Chicago’s, that delay teaching English until children are older miss that valuable window of opportunity, holding back the very children they were created to help.
Help should already be on the way. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that English learners get the same state academic content as other children. Complying with the law should require substantial changes and help ensure that the city’s Spanish-speaking children get more out of their school day than just completing connect-the-dots puzzles of the Mayan god of rain. In fact, these are exactly the type of ineffective bilingual programs Congressional leaders had in mind when they wrote the law.
In recent years, bilingual education reform has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing policy movements. California, Arizona, Massachusetts and Connecticut are among the states that have taken significant steps to emphasize teaching English as early as possible in a child’s schooling. California’s English learners demonstrated remarkable improvements in English fluency after voters there eliminated bilingual education in 1998.
Chicago policymakers would be well advised to adopt such changes soon, before the failures of their current bilingual education program lose another generation of students. Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, VA, and has published research on bilingual education programs around the country, including New York City, Boston and Arizona. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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