Straight talk about bilingual ed

NY Daily News
November 3, 2004

The New York City school system owes foreign language-speaking parents some straight talk about English. To wit: If they want their children to have the best chance of learning America's native tongue, they should avoid enrolling their kids in traditional bilingual classes.

Parents should instead place their children in English as a Second Language instruction. The two programs use different amounts of English in the classroom. ESL students get the greater exposure to the language, and Education Department statistics show that they have far higher success rates in reaching English fluency.

ESL classes are taught in English, but students get extra help in their native tongues. Bilingual classes are taught in both the kids' own language and English. The result: In each of the past five years, the percentage of ESL students passing the state's English proficiency exam has been double that of children in bilingual classes.

In 2001, for example, 25% of ESL students passed, while only 13% of the bilingual ed kids made the grade. Last year, after the state introduced a tougher test, the ESL pass rate dropped to a dismal 9%, but the bilingual rate plummeted even further: to a rock-bottom 3%.

Department officials are at a loss to explain why ESL programs have steadily bested bilingual ed in helping children learn English. While a lay person might conclude otherwise, top assessor Lori Mei says the statistics don't necessarily prove that the more English students use in the classroom, the more English they learn. Maybe ESL kids just have better teachers, she says. Or maybe they're smarter. Or maybe they had instruction in English before they came to this country. Or maybe they were more literate in their native languages.

Any or all those factors might be at work - maybe. But what's certain is traditional bilingual classes, created by court order more out of a desire to maintain cultural identity than to teach kids English, have failed students for decades. What's also sure is that ESL children do twice as well on proficiency tests as kids in bilingual classes.

When he was running for City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg said he wanted to create immersion classes - crash courses using only English - for students with limited English proficiency. The statistics suggest his instinct was right, but immersion is neither realistic nor legally permissible. He has since backed off such a drastic overhaul.

But now Deputy Chancellor Carmen Fariņa is reviewing the city's bilingual programs with an eye toward improving teacher training and standardizing the curriculum. She also is studying expanding dual-language classes, which contain an equal number of English and non-English speakers. Unfortunately, she's not contemplating a top-to-bottom overhaul after determining what works and what doesn't.

The statistics say ESL gets superior, if still poor, results. Parents choosing one of these programs should know about that.

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