The population of English learners in the Chicago Public Schools is large and growing. But the city’s bilingual education programs are among the nation’s worst-performing, by any number of measures. The segregated programs have demonstrated a chronically poor track record of student achievement, particular when it comes to transitioning students to English fluency.
In March of 1998, the Chicago school board approved a new policy to move students out of bilingual education and into mainstream, English-speaking classrooms after no more than three years. “The objective here is to transition children to the English-speaking programs as soon as possible,” said then-CEO Paul Vallas.1 But the policy never took hold, and the programs’ results have failed to improve, as the following findings illustrate.
More than one-third of Chicago students in bilingual education never meet the programs’ exit criteria. Instead, after 5 years, the district simply deposits them back into mainstream, English classrooms.2 After spending all of their previous schooling in segregated, bilingual classrooms, these students do not fare well.
In Spring of 2002, 60 percent of third graders who had been in bilingual education for three years failed to meet the exit criteria, and tested below the 34th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for reading English.3 Most of them would remain in bilingual classes for 2 more years.
Students whom the programs fail to teach English fluency after 5 years face steep odds for success. The rate for those who do achieve “transitioning” scores on Illinois’ IMAGE test for English reading plummet from 14 percent in grade 5 to under 2 percent in grade 6 – and averages under 2 percent for older students.4
Chicago Public Schools data show that most of the students who leave bilingual education without meeting the exit criteria are concentrated in a small number of schools. Chicago had 6 public schools with over 450 students in this category.5
A 2003 study determined Illinois’ high school graduation rate for Hispanic students to be only 53 percent, compared with 84 percent for white students (and 53 percent for black students). Statewide, only 37 percent of Illinois Hispanic students are proficient English readers, nearly half of the total for white students.6
A 2004 study released by the chairman of the Illinois State Senate Education Committee, Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), found the testing and accountability in Chicago’s bilingual programs especially troublesome. “Problems also arise from the exclusion of ELL students from standardized assessments or when test results are not disseminated when they do not exist,” the report said. “In either case, no one is held accountable for the academic progress of ELL students. By not testing ELL students or disseminating their test results, we are unable to track their progress.”7
In practice, many Chicago bilingual education programs “operate in isolation from the rest of their school.”8 This is true both physically, due to the segregated nature of the programs, and also in terms of academic content.
Students in Chicago’s bilingual education program are taught a different curriculum than their peers in mainstream, English classrooms. Under the direction of the district’s Office of Language and Cultural Education, separate curricula for each language minority emphasize other cultures based on students’ ethnicities, often at the expense of teaching important subjects like American history.9 This would seem to place the programs in conflict with No Child Left Behind Act provisions, which require such programs to “meet the same challenging state academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet .”
The failures of these programs hit Chicago’s Spanish-speaking community hardest among language minorities: more than 80 percent of the 83,000 students in bilingual education programs in the Chicago Public Schools speak Spanish.10
The implications of these failures are especially severe because of the size and growth of the city’s English learner population, currently 1 out of 7 students. Chicago has the nation’s third largest among U.S. school districts (behind Los Angeles and New York).11NOTES
1. Education Week, “Chicago Board Approves Plan to Limit Student Time in Bilingual Ed to 3 Years,” March 4, 1998.
2. Chicago Public Schools, Annual Report 2001-2002, Office of Language and Cultural Education.
4. Illinois State Board of Education, September 2, 2003, Baseline Date and Performance Targets, No Child Left Behind Combined State Application.
5. The Honorable Senator Miguel del Valle, 2nd Legislative District Education Advisory Committee, Latinos in the Public Schools — Dando Un Paso: Pa’ Lante o Pa’ Tras, February 2004.
6. “Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States,” Manhattan Institute, September 2003.
7. del Valle, et. al., Latinos in the Public Schools — Dando Un Paso: Pa’ Lante o Pa’ Tras.
8. Designs for Change, September 2003, case study of Rachel Carson Elementary School.
9. Office of Language and Cultural Education, Chicago Public Schools, Mexican Heritage Resource Guide, 2003.
10. Office of Language and Cultural Education 2001-2002.
11. U.S. Department of Education, 2002.
For more information, please contact the Lexington Institute at 703.522.5828.
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