Voter Mandates and Bilingual Education
By RICHARD ROTHSTEIN
IN November, voters in Colorado and Massachusetts will decide on initiatives
that would ban bilingual education. Arizona and California have already adopted
similar measures. Proponents, who want all instruction in English, rely on a
claim that early-20th-century immigrants succeeded by that method, called
But the claim is largely false. A century ago, dropout and failure rates were
much higher among the many immigrants from illiterate backgrounds than they are
Secretary of Education Rod Paige opposes the proposals, saying decisions about
the proportion of English and a child's native language should be made at the
"point of instruction." That is the approach here in the affluent Dallas suburb
of Carrollton, which is mostly non-Hispanic but has a growing population of
Hispanic immigrants. Decisions about how much English a child should have at any
time are made by teachers, with parents' consent. The factors they weigh show
why a flat ban on bilingual education is unlikely to improve immigrants' chances
Carrollton's providing some instruction in Spanish is intended to help students
reach grade level as rapidly as possible. Children learn English for part of the
day but study other subjects in Spanish. Then, when they are ready to join
regular classes, they don't start off behind in math, science, social studies
and literary skills.
Even English-speaking children will often do poorly if their parents had a poor
education and are unfamiliar with academic culture. When those handicaps are
compounded by trying to learn in a language that the student does not
comprehend, success is even less likely.
So when children from Spanish-speaking homes in Carrollton enter school,
teachers assess their fluency in both English and Spanish. Those who are
stronger in Spanish are put in bilingual classes where math, science and social
studies are taught for half the day in Spanish, with the other half in English.
Some immigrants may be stronger in English, though far behind their peers in
both languages, if their home literacy in Spanish is poor. This gives teachers
little on which to build in Spanish, so such children get classes taught mainly
Most language experts say it usually takes Spanish-speaking children five to
seven years of bilingual instruction to be ready for mainstream English classes.
But Carrollton administrators usually move children to regular classes after
three years, provided they pass the Texas minimum-skills test in English.
Annette Griffin, superintendent of schools, says her staff balances several
factors in deciding how much Spanish and English each child should have.
Bilingual teachers are in short supply, so the district concentrates them where
they are most needed, in the early grades. After three years in bilingual
classes, many children have enough English fluency that regular teachers can
give whatever extra help they need.
Although such children are not as English-fluent after three years of bilingual
education as most American-born peers, they may benefit from the influence of
English-speaking classmates. The social value of an English environment has to
be weighed against the instructional value of more Spanish teaching. (This
consideration is a luxury that districts can't indulge if they have few
nonimmigrant peers with whom the immigrants can integrate.)
Support of "point of instruction" decisions on the teaching of immigrants is a
rare case where the Bush administration wants to defer to teachers and
professional educators. Perhaps the reason is that Texas, the president's home
state, has a policy of teaching in native languages and introducing English
gradually. That bilingual approach has proved more successful than English-only.
Some districts have had success by using even more Spanish than Carrollton. A
study of the schools in Houston, where Mr. Paige was previously superintendent,
found that when Hispanic immigrant children had more instruction in Spanish,
their English scores were higher than those of other immigrants and they were
less likely to drop out.
Houston usually keeps children in bilingual education longer than the three
years Carrollton aims for. In fact, the Texas Education Agency recently told
Carrollton schools to increase their emphasis on Spanish.
Perhaps Carrollton's effort to speed the transition to English has been unwise,
and academic gains from more Spanish instruction outweigh social gains from
integrating native and non-native English speakers. Perhaps scarce bilingual
teachers should be spread among more grade levels. Perhaps regular teachers give
poor support to English learners in busy classrooms.
Or perhaps future research will show that immersing immigrants in
English-speaking classes has benefits that have yet been undetected.
But one thing is certain: The worst way to resolve these issues is by voter
mandates that prevent the decisions from being made at the "point of