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The New York Sun
Learning From The Left Coast
11 February 2005
In education, as in so many other endeavors, it is always better to learn from the success or failure of others than to make costly mistakes yourself. That is why it is useful to study the experiences of other states, cities, and schools before committing too much to experimental programs. Recent events in California should provide a rationale for an immediate course correction here in New York.
Much of what is done in our schools today falls into the category of "experimental." For instance, tens of thousands of New York City children are still herded into bilingual education programs. Hundreds of thousands of children have been educated, or in all too many cases, not educated under these programs. In many, if not most of the bilingual models found here, students are exposed to what can only be described as an environment tilted towards the child's native language.
Has bilingual education been proven to work? Or is it yet another experiment? The answer is clear. Despite decades of failure, we are still plunging ahead. Clinical trials of drugs are quickly suspended if results prove dangerous to test subjects. Why are educational experiments, the effectiveness of which is unsubstantiated by any objective scientific review, allowed to continue despite the apparent harm they are causing to children?
My initial opposition to bilingual programs arose from my own experience as a student in New York's public schools during the 1950s and 1960s. Occasionally a child from a foreign country or Puerto Rico would enroll in my school, and be dropped into our all-English-language classroom environment. Miraculously, these children learned to speak and read English at what seemed to be light speed. Within a relatively short period my new classmates would be fully conversant in English, and would often even lose any trace of an accent.
If young children can acquire language skills naturally, why would anyone want to delay or retard this God-given gift? It is from this gut feeling that my initial skepticism about bilingual education programs grew. The fact that bilingual programs were allowed to include native-born children, and in some cases even the native-born children of native-born parents, defied all logic.
State education law caps participation in bilingual programs to three years. Yet this requirement is waived more often than not. The reason is that even after three precious years are wasted, few children can pass the examination required for automatic exit. That fact alone should call these programs into question.
One of the reasons I initially supported mayoral control of the public schools was Mayor Bloomberg's oft-stated opposition to bilingual education programs. To me this reflected the kind of fresh leadership that would finally put the special interests and educational ideologues out of business.
Unfortunately, this is not what happened. The permanent educational establishment that ruined Gotham's schools for the quarter-century before Mr. Bloomberg took charge are in even firmer control today.
That's why new test data from California is both so encouraging and so infuriating.
In 1998, California voters overwhelming passed Proposition 227, which largely eliminated bilingual programs in the state that has the largest proportion of English language learners. Bilingual programs began to be eliminated in the 1999-2000 school year. In the past three years, the results of the California English Language Development Test showed impressive gains that have nearly doubled the proportion of English language learners who have achieved fluency in English.
The educational establishment in California bitterly fought the referendum. But years later, who can argue with the real success of a reform that was insisted upon by ordinary people, voters following their best instincts, not driven by special interest ideology?
Similar referenda have since passed in Arizona and even in liberal Massachusetts. The latest results show that 47% of California's 1.3 million students identified as English language learners were fluent in English last year, compared with 43% for the previous year. That rate has steadily increased from 25% in 2001.
The gains were striking in Los Angeles, where the elimination of bilingual programs has been combined with a commitment to teaching reading skills using phonics-based programs. In Los Angeles Unified School District, 49% of students with limited English proficiency were identified as fluent in 2004. This is a huge increase from 16% in 2001.
Like New York City, Los Angeles is trying to get a meaningful educational reform effort in place. Unlike New York, in part under the duress of the referendum, and in part due to more enlightened leadership that was willing to look at the science and ignore the educational establishment, miracles are taking place. Los Angeles is a school system which was long regarded as significantly worse than ours.
On bilingual education, the stakes are increasingly higher as the number of immigrants increase and Spanish media outlets proliferate. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who devoted a significant part of his fortune to the cause of ending bilingual education, notes that today "children speak Spanish at home and watch Spanish TV and listen to Spanish radio and hear Spanish spoken in the neighborhood. If schools don't teach them a lot of English, how are they ever going to learn it?" That's a lesson that should not be lost on New York.