Commentary | Education

Lessons—Voter Mandates and Bilingual Education

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Voter mandates and bilingual education

By  Richard Rothstein

Carrollton, Tex. — In November, voters in Colorado and Massachusetts will decide on initiatives that would ban bilingual education. Arizona and California have already adopted similar measures. Proponents, who want all instruction in English, rely on a claim that early-20th-century immigrants succeeded by that method, called English immersion.

But the claim is largely false. A century ago, dropout and failure rates were much higher among the many immigrants from illiterate backgrounds than they are today.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige opposes the proposals, saying decisions about the proportion of English and a child’s native language should be made at the “point of instruction.”

That is the approach here in the affluent Dallas suburb of Carrollton, which is mostly non-Hispanic but has a growing population of Hispanic immigrants. Decisions about how much English a child should have at any given time are made by teachers, with parents’ consent. The many factors they weigh show why a flat ban on bilingual education is unlikely to improve immigrants’ chances of success.

Carrollton’s providing some instruction in Spanish is intended to help students reach grade level as rapidly as possible. Children learn English for part of the day but study other subjects in Spanish. Then, when they are ready to join regular classes, they don’t start off behind in math, science, social studies and literary skills.

Even English-speaking children will often do poorly if their parents had a poor education and are unfamiliar with academic culture. When those handicaps are compounded by trying to learn in a language that the student does not comprehend, success is even less likely.

So when children from Spanish-speaking homes in Carrollton enter school, teachers assess their fluency in both English and Spanish. Those who are stronger in Spanish are put in bilingual classes where math, science and social studies are taught for half the day in Spanish, with the other half in English.

Some immigrants may be stronger in English, though far behind their peers in both languages, if their home literacy in Spanish is poor. This gives teachers little on which to build in Spanish, so such children get classes taught mainly in English.

Most language experts say it usually takes Spanish-speaking children five to seven years of bilingual instruction to be ready for mainstream English classes. But Carrollton administrators usually move children to regular classes after three years, provided they pass the Texas minimum-skills test in English.

Annette Griffin, superintendent of schools, says her staff balances several factors in deciding how much Spanish and English each child should have. Bilingual teachers are in short supply, so the district concentrates them where they are most needed, in the early grades. After three years in bilingual classes, many children have enough English fluency that regular teachers can give whatever extra help they need.

Although such children are not as English-fluent after three years of bilingual education as most American-born peers, they may benefit from the influence of English-speaking classmates. The social value of an English environment has to be weighed against the instructional value of more Spanish teaching. (This consideration, to be sure,  is a luxury that other districts can’t indulge if they have few nonimmigrant peers with whom the immigrants can integrate.)

Support of “point of instruction” decisions on the teaching of immigrants is a rare case where the Bush administration wants to defer to teachers and professional educators. Perhaps the reason is that Texas, the president’s home state, has a policy of teaching in native languages and introducing English gradually. That bilingual approach has proved more successful than English-only.

Some districts have had success by using even more Spanish than Carrollton. A recent study of the schools in Houston, where Secretary Paige was previously superintendent, found that when Hispanic immigrant children had more instruction in Spanish, their English scores were higher than those of other immigrants and they were less likely to drop out.

Houston usually keeps children in bilingual education longer than the three years Carrollton aims for. In fact, the Texas Education Agency recently told Carrollton schools to increase their emphasis on Spanish.

Perhaps Carrollton’s effort to speed the transition to English has been unwise, and academic gains from more Spanish instruction outweigh social gains from integrating native and non-native English speakers. Perhaps scarce bilingual teachers should be spread among more grade levels. Perhaps regular teachers give poor support to English learners in busy classrooms.

Or perhaps future research will show that immersing immigrants in English-speaking classes has benefits that have yet been undetected.

But one thing is certain: The worst way to resolve these issues is by voter mandates that prevent the decisions from being made at the “point of instruction.”

Return to the Education Column Archive