2000-09-16 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

The bilingual program as now constituted in New York City destroys the very future of tens of thousands of Hispanic kids. The program benefits only two groups: the politicians that mandated this racist, destructive program in the first place simply to garner minority votes and the people who work for the bilingual infrastructure – Board of Education officials, teachers, paraprofessionals, aides, educational evaluators, psychologists and social workers.

Many of the people who fill those jobs cannot speak adequate English. That is not racist. It is a fact and it shows why more Hispanic kids fail in our schools than any other group.

They fail because they do not learn English in any meaningful way. Despite indications that this is true, the bilingual industry flourishes. It flourishes because the politicians see it as a politically correct program that will get them votes and the people who work in the area or who are "advocates" for Latino causes want it because there are millions of dollars involved. There is big money in poverty and there is big money in "empowerment." I guess that it does not matter that it destroys the lives of tens of thousands of kids.

Before I get to the argument and to the statistics, however, let me tell you a personal story.

I was the programmer at IS 53 in Far Rockaway. There were three bilingual classes at IS 53 and most of the kids had been in the bilingual program for more than five years. Those who grew up in English speaking homes were told to fail the LAB test on purpose so that they could be in class with only other Hispanic children. They were isolated from "them." Those who were new to the country had no English at all, and were not going to learn it in the bilingual class because two of the teachers spoke less English than the students.

Each class had to have six periods of mathematics each week. None of three bilingual licensed teachers knew anything about math, so I programmed one of the bilingual teachers to teach Spanish and programmed a non-Spanish speaking math teacher to teach that subject to the three classes.

The district, in the guise of the bilingual coordinator (there were three of them at the district office at that time), told me that the math teacher could not teach the bilingual students because she could not speak Spanish. I explained that none of the bilingual teachers knew how to teach math and I was told that it did not matter, that all four major subjects had to be taught in the native language. In fact, the kids did not take English at all (with the exception of some ESL periods), but a course called Native Language. They are taught mathematics by a teacher who does not know how to teach math and they are taught social studies by a teacher who has no knowledge or background in American history. I walked in on one class where the teacher had written "Eugene V. Debs" on the board. Debs was a famous socialist who helped to found the union movement in America. She was telling the class that this was, in fact, a famous Supreme Court case, Eugene versus Debs. That is true and I could not make it up.

The fact that most of the students in bilingual classes do not learn English well enough so that they can function in society after they leave school should come as no surprise, especially to regular readers of this column. I have been writing about it for year. Now, however, the movement to do away with the program has moved from being a trickle to becoming a flood.

The original program had some promise. The idea was to keep a kid learning the subjects in his or her native language for a short period of time until a regular class became tenable. Two years was to be the limit. Any kid not testing out of the program in three years was to be evaluated for special education services.

Today, there are about 177,000 kids in bilingual classes. A recent study tracked more than 16,000 students who entered the bilingual program in 1992 – eight years ago. Of those students, 88.9 percent of the students (almost 9 out of 10) did not test out of the program in three years. The majority were in the program for six years or more. That is a damning statistic and that alone should be enough to close the program down.

In total, less that half of the students who enter the program make it out in less than three years.

"These are shocking numbers and they show that something needs to be fixed," says Randy Mastro, co-chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education.

The study also shows that students who go into the English as a Second Language (ESL) program rather than into bilingual classes move into mainstream classes more than twice as quickly as those in bilingual classes.

One parent summed up the problem nicely. "My 14-year-old daughter could speak street English, but she could not read a book for babies," she said. "They taught her in Spanish in school. That is no good. She knows Spanish. I put her in a Catholic school where they teach her in English and now she can read English."

The New York study comes on the heels of a California study that shows pretty much the same thing.

The difference is that California held a referendum two years ago and the voters (largely Latino) voted to do away with bilingual education.

A follow up study this year shocked those who did not already know what a destructive program bilingual education really is.

The California study compared kids who had been in the bilingual program for at least two prior to its demise and then the two years after the program’s demise. They found that the majority of the kids had made no gains in English in the two years prior to the end of the program but that they had made more than a two year gain in English in the years since its end.

There is no way to take that except to say that the bilingual program does not work and that ESL and other immersion programs do.

What should the city’s board of education do with the information from the two studies? It should do away with bilingual education and put the money into ESL programs and they should do it quickly.

This has nothing to do with the "English Only" movement even though those in favor of bilingual education attempt to tar people like me who know what a terrible program it really is from first hand knowledge with the same brush as the English Only crowd. That makes us look like racists when in fact we are educators who care about Latino students.

That is more than you can say for those who push the bilingual industry for their own political or monetary gain.

We can do it better and we can do it cheaper. The politically correct will not allow us to do either.


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