Learning From the Left Coast
New York Sun
February 11, 2005
BY ANDREW WOLF
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
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
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
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.