Speakout: Bilingual ed hasn't kept its promise
By Ken Noonan
Rocky Mountain News, October 25, 2002
Why not bilingual education?
For a little more than 30 years in the United States, bilingual education has
been an official strategy for teaching students whose native language is not
English. In most of the country, the majority of students in bilingual programs
are Hispanics who are first taught to speak, read and write in Spanish, and are
gradually moved into English a few years later.
But there are flaws in the rationale for using this method of instruction, which
has consumed billions of taxpayer's dollars over the decades.
First, bilingual instruction is not bilingual at all. For Hispanics, Spanish is
used for instruction almost exclusively until about the third grade, with
varying degrees of increased English use from fourth to about sixth grade,
"Bilingual" is a misnomer; the reality is that during the critical first years
of school, instruction is mostly in one language - Spanish.
A second flaw stems from the theory that teaching students to read and write in
their home language first will make them stronger speakers and readers of
English. We do know that children who come to our schools literate in their home
language make the transfer to English fairly well.
But most of our Hispanic immigrants are not literate in Spanish when they
arrive. Spending up to six years teaching them Spanish does not make them
stronger speakers and readers of English, but instead creates a deficit in their
of the English language.
By the time these students reach grades six through eight, they are already up
to seven years behind their English classmates in mastering English.
Under the traditional "bilingual" model, these students are just beginning to
develop their English skills at this most critical period in school when they
are rotating among many teachers and getting increasingly difficult reading and
assignments that they must complete in English.
The gap only widens as these students move into high school.
That's the essence of the second flaw in most bilingual programs. Using the
first three to six years of a child's 13 years in school to teach them to speak,
read and write Spanish puts them at least that far behind their English-speaking
These students cannot cram 13 years of English skills development, plus subject
matter, into seven or eight years. If they could, there would be just as many
Spanish-speaking students in high school honors and advanced placement classes
as there are English speakers.
To the contrary, the number of students who have come through bilingual
education and who are enrolled in these challenging courses is appallingly
small. In fact, after 30 years of bilingual education, Hispanics have the
highest dropout rate in the nation and their graduation rate is dismal. Few are
admitted to four-year universities on merit and fewer still earn a university
Some say that students are learning core subject matters in their bilingual
classes, but learning subject matter in Spanish doesn't cut it. What is
essential for the academic success of immigrant students is development of
literacy skills in English
from day one in school.
These students need and deserve the full 13 years of English language
development received by their English-speaking classmates.
And therein lies the most serious flaw of bilingual education. These students
need to develop their English skills first, when children learn easily and
quickly, not last. Our students, all of them, must first become proficient in
English. Only after that
should we engage in the development of literacy in our immigrant children's home
The promise of bilingual education, made more than 30 years ago, has not been
kept. We must move away from the unsuccessful bilingual programs of the past to
a method of immersing these children in English, all day, every day.
Where English immersion is used, students are effectively reading grade-level
literature in English by second grade. Our immigrant students deserve this kind
Sometimes we have to put aside even of our most cherished beliefs. Bilingual
education must be replaced with programs like English immersion, which will help
our immigrant children succeed in school and in life. It is time.
Ken Noonan, superintendent of the 22,000-student Oceanside Unified School
District in California, is a former bilingual teacher. Oceanside schools ended
bilingual education in favor of English immersion more than four years
ago. Cindy Sabato Public Information Officer Oceanside Unified School District
2111 Mission Avenue Oceanside, CA 92054
760-757-2560, ext. 210; fax: 760-433-3191