Stephanie Gutmann is a free-lance writer who lives in New York City.

Twenty years ago, when Annie Martinez was a child of seven, her mother brought her to New York City. Annie, daughter of a laundry man still lives in Cuba, had the class immigrant child’s experience of finding herself baffled by a bewildering clamor of alien sounds in the middle of a mostly indifferent American public school.

She had little choice but to sit quietly until the sounds began to make sense. This happened fairly speedily—as it often does for young children, given their sponge-like learning capacity.

“When I came I spoke not a word of English,” she says, “but by the next year I was understanding a lot. Little kids can learn English very fast.” Now 27, Martinez works as an administrative assistant at Columbia University’s department of mechanical engineering and lives in Washington Heights with her husband, a maintenance man at Yeshiva University.

When Martinez’s five-year-old son, Aneudy, was ready for kindergarten, she dutifully took him to the local public school. But what she heard as she passed each classroom door made her uneasy: In every class, the teacher was speaking Spanish. The Martinez family speaks English at home, and Annie wanted her son’s education to continue in English because “he’s here in the United States, and to get ahead in life he has to speak English.”

Mother and son eventually found their way to the auditorium to register. Here a rushed school employee asked the boy to say a few words in English, as was routine with all new students bearing a Hispanic surname. On the basis of this “test,” the woman told Martinez that her son would be assigned to a class in the school’s bilingual program, in which instruction in conventional school topics—arithmetic and reading, for example—is carried on in Spanish. But Martinez dug in her heels. She had heard from relatives and people in her Washington Heights neighborhood about kids who were kept in bilingual classes—surrounded by Spanish-speaking peers, studying Spanish textbooks, listening to a Spanish-speaking teacher—and who at age 12, 15, or 16 still spoke English haltingly or not at all. Martinez marched out and telephoned a parochial school in the neighborhood. The next day, after receiving satisfactory assurances that instruction there would be given in English, she registered her son.

Martinez is one of a few immigrant parents who every year manage to wrest their children from the Board of Education’s purportedly high-minded determination to preserve their native culture. The thrust of this effort is a program called “bilingual education,” in which almost all instruction is in the parents’ native language rather than English.

There are some less amply financed alternatives for dealing with the assimilation problems of allegedly non-English-speaking students in the New York City school system. In an English as a Second Language (ESL) program, for example, students are instructed entirely in English, supplemented by a daily English-language lesson directed to the new English-speaker. For the past twenty years, however, most of the attention and three-fourths of the money have gone to bilingual education, in which the student spends almost the entire day working in Spanish or Russian or Haitian Creole.

The goal of the bilingual education program was once merely to get children into the English-speaking mainstream as quickly as possible, saving kids, who otherwise often dropped out of school due to problems in English comprehension. The assumption was that they would learn academic subject matter more quickly and better if it were taught in the language spoken in their homes, and that a tolerant society would accept without significant resistance their inability to converse in English, effectively if not legally the national tongue.

Over the past 25 years several discoveries challenged the assumptions underlying bilingual education. Evidence accumulated to show that children taught in their native language, segregated from the mainstream, don’t learn English quickly and are grossly handicapped in a competitive society by the primitive level of their conversational capacity. They start out segregated and monolingual and remain segregated and monolingual. Since the vast majority stay in the United States where they have to understand, speak, and write English to earn decent livings, their educational experience is fundamentally unsatisfactory.

Yet at the same time as the drawbacks of bilingual education were becoming clear, the bureaucrats running bilingual programs got more money, became more entrenched, and thus found more ways to get more kids into bilingual education for a greater number of years. The position of these educators was reinforced by the intensification of ethnic politics that decried the prevalence of “Eurocentric teaching.” Although Spanish is a European language, teaching it to children of Hispanic background began to seem like an appropriate defense against drowning their culture in a wave of Anglo dominance.

Over the years, English-only and bilingual teaching have been given distinct political meanings. In its latest “Regents Policy Paper and Proposed Action Plan for Bilingual Education,” the New York State Department of Education proclaimed that “state and local curricula do not adequately reflect the linguistic and cultural background of language minority students, contributing to losses in native language proficiency, self-esteem, and cultural pride.”

James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, a group that has helped to write much of the federal legislation shaping bilingual education, has been quoted as saying that the conflicts over bilingual education are about “whether a child has a right to have his native language developed—not just maintained, but developed.”

Jim Cummins of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, author of many of the studies that bilingual education supporters cite, says in his book Empowering Minority Students that bilingual education is an “empowerment pedagogy” that offers an alternative to “white Anglo domination.”

In other words, the goal of teaching immigrant children to function adequately in their new, presumably permanent environment is to be condemned as inadequate, even racist. Shielded by a moat of political correctitude, bilingual programs around the country have become the most entrenched, least flexible, and most imperial of education empires.

The “language minority” or Limited English Proficient (LEP) child thus falls into a parallel education system, where there is even a separate but not equal way to test skills before graduation. A system of “alternative testing” allows a child to graduate from a New York City high school without knowing a word of English. The alternative testing program was set up, as a Board of Regents position paper put it, “to assure [LEP students] their equal access to State-endorsed diplomas.”

It is generally assumed that the New York City Board of Education knows better than parents what the best educational policy is for their offspring. Thus the desire of parents for their children to become proficient in English can be dismissed by bureaucrats as products of “shame,” “low self-esteem,” or “lack of empowerment.” Yet the stark fact remains that when Hispanic parents with children in public schools were asked in a recent Gallup poll in which language they prefer their children to be taught, only 3 percent favored mostly Spanish instruction. Thirty-eight percent wanted their children taught only in English, and 47 percent mostly in English, with some Spanish.

“English with some Spanish” happens to be an excellent description of the ESL method. Alternative methods like ESL, however, get only about 25 percent of federal funding for non-English-speaking students.

According to the central Board of Education, there were 121,777 children in bilingual programs in New York City in the 1990-91 school year. The vast majority (66 percent) are Hispanic, but there are also bilingual programs taught in Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, Korean, and 11 other languages. It is very difficult to get an exact price tag on bilingual ed, because the funds come from federal, state, and city sources and are spread diffusely. To give some idea of the cost, the state now spends about $30 million on bilingual education in New York City, the Federal Government spends about $11.7 million, and the city—about which it is extremely difficult to get current information—spent $90 million in the 1987-88 school year. The numbers for the city and state will probably rise because the State Board of Regents, the highest policy-setting agency in New York, has recently changed its definition of children who must be educated bilingually.

How is it determined which children will go into bilingual education? All children who seem likely to have a “home or ancestry where languages other than English are spoken” are supposed to be screened to determine whether they need to take the English Language Assessment Battery (LAB) test, an oral English reading exam. Of course, if we use this broad definition in the polyglot United States, schools would have to test nearly every child, as most children have at least an “ancestry” that speaks a language other than English. But in practice, according to parents, teachers, and administrators, Spanish-surnamed children are practically always tested, while other children—Asian, Haitian, Egyptian—are tested only erratically, at the convenience of the particular school administration. School districts are required to create a new bilingual program if there are at least twenty LEP children with the same language background at the same grade level assigned to the same building. Sometimes a school will want the funding a bilingual program will bring—and sometimes it is more convenient to look the other way when, say, a Cambodian child registers. Coming up with Cambodian instructors and Cambodian textbooks can be difficult—particularly if one is accommodating only twenty children.

Under the old law, children who were ranked in the bottom 23 percent of those taking the English Language Assessment Battery were assigned to bilingual education. As of January 1990, the standard was changed to put those in the bottom 40 percent into bilingual education. In her book Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, Linda Chavez calls this change in percentile “one of the most controversial elements of the New York plan.” Barbara Blumenfeld, president of the New York chapter of LEAD (Learning English Advocates Drive), a national organization of educators who want to reform bilingual education, says: “Many children are not going to make 40 on that kind of a test, even if their first language is English. The passing grade to be promoted to the next grade level is usually lower than 40—it’s 37 or 32. [Changing the percentile] just inflates the number of children who are in bilingual classes.” Another troubling aspect of the LAB test: This oral reading exam is first given to children in kindergarten who haven’t learned to read yet. Of course, most kindergartners are going to fail it, Spanish background or not. And because Spanish-surnamed children are automatically tested while others are not—or not consistently—the Board of Education will continue to track Hispanic children into bilingual ed. The Board of Education’s own numbers tell the tale. There are 54,064 Hispanic children in bilingual education programs, as compared with 27 Italian and 587 Russian children. Do these numbers accurately reflect the presence of children of Italian or Russian background in New York? No, they are evidence, rather, that there are enough children in the schools whose native tongue is Spanish to support a weighty bureaucracy of advocates of Spanish-language bilingual education.

Parents do have the legal option of withdrawing their child from bilingual education, but the Board of Education seems to do everything it can to conceal this choice and to discourage parents from exercising it. Though Martinez was clearly furious at Aneudy’s assignment to bilingual education, no one at the school told her that Aneudy could be placed in a mainstream public school class. Even if a parent somehow, by badgering or detective work, finds out that withdrawal is an option, the school system makes the option extremely difficult to exercise. Parents are required to come down to the school, during the working day, and talk to the school’s principal or its bilingual coordinator. “We’re talking about parents on entry-level jobs here,” says Blumenfeld. “They don’t get paid if they’re at their children’s school instead of their job.”

If parents do meet with the bilingual coordinator, they’re usually unprepared to go up against a professional who has a vested interest in maximizing the importance of bilingual education. The coordinator is trained as well as motivated to keep the child enrolled in the bilingual program. “Many of the parents are very shy; they regard the bilingual coordinator as ’la profesora’ and they don’t want to go against her. We have heard from parents that school system officials intimate they’re not good parents if they try to take their children out,” says Blumenfeld. The parent who opts to take a child out of bilingual education must renew that decision every year by notifying the Board of Education by mail.

The term “bilingual education program” is a bit confusing. Administrators trying to keep the children of reluctant parents in the program often use the argument that the child is getting “more service” for his education dollar. “They feel that they’re going to get English and Spanish at the same time,” Blumenfeld says, “and technically they do—they have one period of English a day.” This is hardly more than an empty gesture in comparison with the time spent speaking Spanish or another language.

Some parents don’t care; some don’t know what’s going on; some—although living in the United States—believe in the rightness of a system that treats both languages as equally effective in daily discourse. Once they find out more about the bilingual program, however, many parents try to pull their children out. Blumenfeld saw a big rise in the number of Dominican parents who tried to withdraw their children from bilingual education after a critical WWOR-TV Channel 9 special was aired. Daniel Abreu, a Washington Heights high school teacher featured on the program, produced child after child who spoke no more than halting English after five or six years in bilingual ed.

Washington Heights will continue to be a thorn in the Board of Education’s side because of its huge Hispanic population. For example, Newsday columnist Jim Dwyer witnessed a showdown between parents from Washington Heights District 6 and officials from the Central Board of Education. Lenore Peay, director of a Washington Heights Head Start program, had been able to get the central headquarters officials to come uptown because she had so many parents who were upset at their children’s assignment to bilingual education. I have to pay $25 an hour for a private tutor,” proclaimed Gregoria Jimenez. After three years in a bilingual class, Dwyer reported, Jimenez’s son was “zero-lingual”—he couldn’t read in any language. Another man, Charles Pacheco, complained that his daughter had been placed in bilingual even though he and she spoke English. According to Dwyer, District 6 has a waiting list with six hundred to seven hundred names of parents who have requested their children’s placement in an English-only school.

There are other brushfires that don’t make the dailies because they’re quickly extinguished by teachers who know how to manipulate the system’s rules and regulations. One New York City high school teacher, who didn’t want to be named, tells about the time the Board of Education discovered that there were twenty Haitian children at the same grade level in his high school. “The Board said, ’You have to start a program,’” the teacher recalls. He assembled the children, who had been doing fine in ESL, and told them, I have wonderful news for you. Starting September first you won’t be in ESL anymore. You’re going to have all your classes in Creole.”

I knew what their reaction would be,” the teacher continues. “The kids were furious. I said, ’if this is not what you want, then you have to get your parents to call the Board of Ed—and keep calling them.’ They created a row sufficiently strong to force the whole thing to be canceled—but this is the kind of thing we have to go through periodically.”

Equal Access?

The problem of bilingual education has developed over the past two decades. Bilingual programs in place in New York today, like others across the nation, evolved with the help of a landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision, Lau v. Nicols, which established the principle that the absence of special language instruction in public schools amounted to “discrimination” because only English-speaking students are taught in their native language. The decision established that non- English-speaking students have a right to “equal access” to education, but left it to individual communities to decide how to provide such access.

Bilingual advocates, however, embellished the principle of equal access with the notion that the teaching of English is a manifestation of imperialism, a blatant expression of the absolute primacy of the English language and European civilization above all others. This idea, while not expressed in official policy language, has shaped the interpretation of the Lau decision and the development of bilingual programs.

The process started even before the Lau decision. In 1972, for example, a policy paper published by the State Board of Regents noted that a 1970 New York City school census found that one of every seven children in the system could not speak English. It therefore proclaimed that “culturally and linguistically different people share the equal rights of freedom and opportunity fundamental to democracy... A fundamental tenet of bilingual education is that a person living in a society whose language and culture differ from his own must be equipped to participate meaningfully in the mainstream of that society. It should not be necessary for him to sacrifice his rich native language and culture to achieve such participation.”

But there were skeptics: Also in 1972, Albert Shanker, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT, New York City’s teachers’ union), had something to say about the Central Board of Education’s new licensing system for bilingual teachers. “The board,” Shanker said, “has adopted a very dangerous method: the creation of a separate series of jobs and licenses.” He also warned that “Our devotion to bilingual education must not be merely emotional and sentimental.... Puerto Ricans particularly must be wary of using the bilingual program to compensate for the colonial status of the island and its people.”

The tide, however, kept swelling. Later in 1972, a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report charged “oppression” of Mexican-American pupils in the Southwest— illustrated, no doubt, by low academic achievement and high dropout rates. The courts kept attributing low achievement to “linguistic discrimination”—that is, instruction in English. Once the absence of a bilingual program is assumed to demonstrate “lack of equal access to education,” the courts have no alternative but to find schools that do not supply a bilingual program in violation of students’ rights.

In July 1972, the Office of Civil Rights of what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare launched a major investigation of New York City schools after Senator Jacob Javits charged that Puerto Rican students were denied “equal educational opportunities.” Javits was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Puerto Rican children’s difficulties with English “impede their ability to function in the normal classroom.” Two months later, in an apparent reaction to the gathering storm, the city’s Central Board of Education created a new Office of Bilingual Education and announced an expansion of the city’s bilingual education program, although the board was vague about just what it would expand.

Still, the drumbeats in the background continued and were filtered through New York City’s daily press. In July 1972, a feature article in the New York Times noted “a growing concern among educators—and growing militancy in the Puerto Rican community—over the quality of educational opportunity in New York’s English-only schools.” The article, characteristic of the assimilation-is-imperialism genre, was titled “Teaching Juan His Name Is John” and quoted Joseph Monserrat, president of the city’s central board, as saying: “[A] kid grows up in a Spanish-speaking house. He eats rice and beans, he has a language and a certain way of being. This kid walks into a classroom when he’s six, and what the school proceeds to do then is to knock his language out of him, in effect telling him that his whole world up till then is wrong.”

In September 1973, the Federal Government, as if to demonstrate its serious commitment to bilingual education, withheld $965,000 from its usual aid to District 19 in Brooklyn because the district refused to set up separate math and reading tests for black and Puerto Rican children. “District 19,” reported the New York Times, “refused to alter its policy of equal testing and equal scoring for all children, saying that the restandardization of testing methods as created by the federal Office of Education catered to the myth of racial inferiority in the learning process.” The Office of Education retorted that the intent of the restandardization program was to “establish a less biased and more sensitive instrument.”

Not surprisingly, Schools Chancellor Irving Anker requested a record budget for the 1974-75 school year, including $14.5 million “to meet the needs of students whose dominant language is not English.”

In 1974, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Lau v. Nichols, a case brought on behalf of a Chinese student in the San Francisco school system. In response to the decision, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare created what are known as the “Lau remedies,” which, among other things, prohibited ESL instruction in elementary school. The Lau remedies also expanded the way entitlement to bilingual education was defined. Until then, children had been assigned to special classes only when their English skills were weak, but the Office of Civil Rights created the definition that New York still uses today: “School districts,” according to Chavez, “were required to determine what language was most often used in the child’s home, what language the child used most frequently, and what language the child learned first. Whether children from such homes understood English and could benefit from an English-language school curriculum was more or less irrelevant under the Lau remedies.”

The same year, New York City entered into a legal settlement with Aspira of New York, Inc., and Aspira of America, Inc., two groups of Hispanic civil rights activists. They had filed a class-action suit on behalf of Spanish-speaking schoolchildren in the city. The consent decree, signed on August 29, 1974, required the city to improve its methods for “identifying” children who could benefit from learning their basic subjects in Spanish, and to install a full bilingual program in all schools where it was thought to be needed.

Just three months later, UFT president Albert Shanker made serious charges about the bilingual programs that were already under way: School systems were ignoring qualified teachers who knew or could learn Spanish, and were hiring unqualified Hispanic teachers just because they were Hispanic. He charged that non-Hispanic teachers had been fired for insufficient understanding of Hispanic culture, that successful ESL programs had been terminated, and that children were being forced into bilingual programs against their parents’ wishes.

The next 15 years saw charges and countercharges, litigation (Aspira sued the city several times for not complying with the consent decree), and reams of policy papers, journal articles, and studies. Bilingual education grew, spawning what critics have called a “bilingual lobby” and a “bilingual support industry,” typified by endeavors like the New York State Department of Education’s Bilingual Education Technical Assistance Centers, “located in large cities throughout the state ... to assist schools serving Limited English Proficient students.”

But not all was supportive. In September 1978, for example, a U.S. Office of Education study found that 85 percent of a sample student group were kept in bilingual classes although they had learned English. Schools Chancellor Frank Macchiarola proposed that the school system hold bilingual students to the same standards as other students—an idea that went nowhere, probably because the bilingual establishment feared that the results would cast doubt on the success of bilingual teaching.

In 1989, the Board of Regents made an important announcement: “Present regulations require limited English proficient students to leave bilingual education programs too soon, before they are ready to function effectively in English-only classrooms [emphasis in original].” The remedy: the aforementioned raised LAB percentile, which would increase the number of children assigned to bilingual education by some 75 percent.

This is a terrible development. Even someone like Marie Thomas, principal of P.S. 132 in the Bronx, who thinks that “the bilingual concept is great,” says that the new cutoff score just creates “more jobs and positions and testing and bureaucracy.” Furthermore, she says, “We haven’t been able to serve the students’ needs when we used the 23rd percentile as a cut-off.” How, she asks, can the system cope if nearly twice as many students are routed into bilingual education?

Another problem in New York’s bilingual education program arises from the difficulty in finding qualified staff to teach the classes. There are not enough people who are proficient in two languages and want to teach in the city’s public schools. “We’re hiring,” blares a huge yellow advertisement on a bus shelter at Amsterdam Avenue and 104th Street. “The New York City public schools need bilingual college graduates qualified as school psychologists, school social workers, teachers of special education, teachers of speech improvement, and guidance counselors. To learn more about these and other rewarding careers, call 1-800-TEACH-NY,” the ad copy cajoles.

“They don’t have the teachers to implement the bilingual program.... I now have four classes and I have four vacancies. This is October first and I’m still interviewing teachers,” says Marie Thomas.

“There aren’t enough regular teachers who are qualified. The Board of Education has sponsored recruiting trips to the Caribbean to bring them back,” she continues. “They will help them get the courses, and make sure they get a place to live. But many don’t survive because the change is too much—coming from their area into a metropolis like this. Many of them are not ready to teach, period, much less teach bilingual. If you had qualified people teaching the lower grades, the children would be mainstreamed sooner.”

But the Board of Education keeps diverting children into the bilingual track. Without qualified teachers, the bilingual program has become a dumping ground in many schools, an inferior part of an already troubled school system. “Children are threatened that if they fail they’ll be put in bilingual,” says Daniel Abreu, the Washington Heights high school teacher, who is enthusiastic about bilingual education in principle.

Still, teachers struggle to comply with the Board of Ed’s dual goal. One harried fifth-grade teacher says she is “trying to bring the children up to speed in Spanish, so they can move on to English.” Meanwhile, she complains that her students speak a “very minimum” of English and are unable to do simple multiplication.

Supporters of bilingual education argue that these problems are well worth it because research shows that LEP children who have had bilingual education learn faster, score higher, and stay in school longer than English-deficient children who do not go through bilingual education. Their assertions are countered by opponents who attack the methodology of studies purportedly proving the superiority of bilingual ed results, point to conflict of interest, or produce studies that conclude the opposite. Bilingual education has been around for about twenty years now, and there has been ample time for both sides to commission studies, develop their own research, and court funding. To reach the truth by these means could take forever because more research is churned out all the time.

Lately supporters of bilingual education have been crowing about a major study commissioned during the Reagan administration and just recently released. This study followed two thousand Spanish-speaking Students for four years, comparing how quickly three types of instruction—early-exit bilingual (similar to ESL), late-exit (traditional) bilingual, and immersion strategy (all-English instruction)—”mainstreamed” their students.

The study found that the children in late-exit programs learned English, reading, and math skills at least as quickly as English-speaking students, while children in early-exit and immersion fell behind. The researchers cautioned, however, that the programs they studied represented the “optimal implementation” of the bilingual instruction strategy. New York’s bilingual programs are hardly optimal, and the study made no effort to evaluate the actual programs in place in New York and elsewhere. (Only one of the nine schools studied was in New York City.)

The children studied were also unrepresentative: The researchers noted that the late-exit children had more-involved parents than the other children in the study. Which variable was responsible for the successful outcome? To really test the effectiveness of late-exit, the researchers would have had to adjust for differences in parental involvement.

The study also confirms what many critics have charged: that children are often kept in bilingual programs long after they have learned English. “After four years in their respective instructional programs, three-fourths of the immersion-strategy and over four-fifths of the early-exit students who had entered their programs in kindergarten are not mainstreamed. That is, students tend to be kept within the instructional program, even those who have been reclassified as fluent English-proficient.”

The ESL Solution

If we got rid of bilingual education, we wouldn’t have to return to the old, heartless days of English immersion. We could still give English-deficient students special consideration, but with more ESL teaching. It would offer the best of both worlds: The child works and struggles in the mainstream—into which he must eventually move anyway—but he is not just dumped in.

Any good teacher should be able to teach recent immigrants in English and spend an extra 45 minutes a day teaching an English-language class. Of course, the Board of Education has made ESL-teacher qualification as complicated as almost everything else it touches: Would-be ESL teachers must acquire a battery of special education-school credits. Practically speaking, though, why shouldn’t any teacher deemed qualified to teach be able to teach ESL?

There’s only one problem with moving in the ESL direction: It requires that school commissioners and chancellors and legislators make a 180-degree turn in their thinking about assimilation. Implementing ESL instruction requires abandoning the idea that assimilation is oppression—a kind of violence that wipes out a child’s native culture and imposes something monolithic called “European values and culture.”

It requires that the school system again embrace the old-fashioned notion that new immigrants can maintain their native culture without the help of the government. It means accepting the idea that immigrants can contribute elements of their native culture to the melting pot of the United States without a government program telling them how to do it. The government, after all, didn’t sponsor rock-and-roll, or jazz, or the different schools of modern dance, or the Thai, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants that line the streets of New York.

The good news is that if one goes down into the trenches, where the Board of Education’s tentacles don’t always reach, one finds plenty of children and teachers who somehow haven’t grasped this education-school notion that assimilation is violence. Children from all around the world just keep piling into our schools, eager to mix it up, seemingly confident in their ability to give and take without losing themselves.

Says one city teacher, I often ask the class, ’Why did your family come to America?’ Universally the response will be: ’We came here to get ahead.’ Of course there are some who will say for political reasons, but the overriding reason they give is economic opportunity. None of them say, ’I came here to improve my Spanish.’”


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