Article published in The New York Post
In the last four years, Mayor Bloomberg has committed at least $20 million to reforming bilingual programs. But immigrant children continue to fall through the cracks. It’s time for him to rediscover his 2001 pledge to drop ineffective bilingual-ed programs, and adopt the English-immersion approach that’s worked wonders for English learners in other states.
In the four years before Bloomberg took office (1997-2001), the dropout rate for New York’s English learners, who are almost entirely immigrants, had risen faster than for any other student population in the city. In fact, more were dropping out than graduating. This is quite significant, considering that a full 13 percent of the city’s students are English learners.
The city is simply doing a terrible job at teaching English to immigrant children. As of the year 2000, more than 83 percent of New York City students who entered bilingual programs in the ninth grade were not fluent enough in English to test out after four years.
Unfortunately, the mayor has done little to remedy the problem. In 2003, the graduation rate for Hispanics was just 43 percent — markedly worse than the (still awful) 54 percent rate for non-Hispanic students. Some 26 percent of Hispanics dropped out. (Many of the rest were pushed onto the GED track — and a General Equivalence Diploma is a markedly inferior substitute for the real thing.)
The city Board of Education says that at least 16 percent of all of the city’s English learners were still trapped in segregated classrooms after nine years. Overall, less than 9 percent of children in K-12 bilingual classrooms were proficient in English by the end of the 2003-2004 school year and were deemed fluent enough to join mainstream classrooms.
And the federal Education Department found that just 8.1 percent of high schoolers in NYC’s bilingual classrooms were proficient enough in English by the end of the 2003-2004 school year to join the mainstream classroom
As noted, the problem long predates Bloomberg. But the mayor seems to have abandoned the best hope for turning things around: his 2001 campaign pledge to support immersion education — which provides children with instruction in English, and integrates them into mainstream classrooms. Instead, he has expanded programs that segregate non-English speakers into separate classrooms and teach them in their native languages.
To his credit, Bloomberg has tried to bring more English into bilingual classrooms by calling for 40 percent of instruction to be in English. But that’s a far cry from the “total immersion” he promised in 2001.
Adding to the confusion is a new state-mandated standardized test, the English as a Second Language Achievement Test. This is intended to help ensure that English learners have gained sufficient proficiency before joining mainstream classrooms. Unfortunately — and despite good intentions — no assessment test will help students gain English proficiency as long as they’re stuck in bilingual programs, which have proven to be inherently ineffective.
The solution is not to pump more money into a failing bilingual system, which segregates English-language learners into separate classrooms where they spend most of their day learning in their native tongue. Immersion education is the answer for New York City’s children struggling with English proficiency.
States that have switched to immersion education from segregationist programs have had substantial success. California — which used bilingual programs for decades without closing the English proficiency gap — is a leading example. In 2004, 47 percent of English learners scored in the top two proficiency categories on the California English Language Development Test. That was up from 25 percent in 2001, when the state (under orders from a voter initiative) adopted immersion, rather than bilingual-ed.
This should point the way for New York City schools. Immigrant children who remain segregated from their native English-speaking peers in the city’s public school classrooms are a testimony to the fact that the city’s bilingual programs aren’t working.
If immigrant children are kept from learning English in the classroom, how will they succeed beyond the schoolroom doors? Limited English speakers end up working the least desirable jobs and earn half of what English proficient adults do, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
If Bloomberg really wants to help these children, he could start by ensuring immersion education becomes reality here. The city’s immigrant children will continue to pay a heavy price if he doesn’t.
Sarah Means Lohmann is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va.
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