Separate unequal classes set
bilingual education back
May. 17, 2005
BY SARAH MEANS LOHMANN AND DON SOIFER
Fifty-one years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to
separate children into different classrooms based on their race. Yet despite the
famous outcome of Brown vs. Board of Education, segregation continues in our
All too frequently, immigrant children are taught in separate classrooms
from their peers for years on end. Many are not taught in English, leaving them
with little chance to gain proficiency. Three-fourths of these English learners
This modern day segregation is perhaps more subtle than it was in the
1950s, but it's just as destructive.
Limited-English speakers end up working the least desirable jobs and earn
half of what English-proficient adults do, according to the U.S. Department of
Education. Cordoning children into separate classrooms and depriving them of
English language skills condemns them to a life of second-class citizenship.
This is hardly a small issue. In big cities like New York, for example, a
full 13 percent of students are English learners. One result of placing students
in segregated classrooms is that at least 15 percent of 16- to 19-year-old
Hispanics educated in the United States drop out of school.
Even worse, only 52 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school with
standard diplomas. Many of the rest are pushed onto tracks to pursue General
Education Development certificates, which are far from equal substitutes in
today's competitive job market.
The bilingual and multicultural education establishment maintains that
focusing on children's native language and culture leads to higher. self-esteem
and ultimately better performance. But denying them English proficiency -- which
brings better jobs and higher salaries -- is unlikely to achieve those goals.
Immigrant parents understand this instinctively. Most
desperately want their children to learn English well.
And one of the best ways our schools can ensure proficiency is to embrace
In states across the country, English proficiency scores have clearly gone
up in schools that have adopted immersion education.
California -- which used segregationist bilingual programs for decades
without closing the English proficiency gap -- is a leading example. In 2004, 47
percent of English learners scored in the top two proficiency categories on the
California English Language Development Test. That was up from 25 percent in
2001, shortly after the state first implemented immersion programs.
Those who advocate segregationist programs often do so out of good
intentions. They think of immersion as it was in the early 20th century, when
immigrant children were left to ''sink or swim'' in English-only classes.
This simply isn't the case anymore. Educators now know far more about how
children learn languages. As a result, modern ''structured English immersion''
programs focus on getting students fluent in English as early as possible in
their education -- before they fall hopelessly behind. Often they are able to
graduate to mainstream classes in just about a year.
In a typical junior high or high school program, students receive two to
three periods of intensive English training. Then they join mainstream
classrooms for the rest of the day. These programs have the explicit goal of
integrating Hispanics or other immigrant children as quickly as possible into
classrooms with native English speakers.
Another problem is that parents of immigrant students are often not
informed of their right to allow their children to be involved in immersion
programs. This is unfortunate, as immersion programs would give their children
the skills they'll need to succeed for the rest of their lives. Without
proficiency in English, it's almost impossible to move on to higher levels of
education or get better-paying jobs within our country.
The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling
provided the legal basis to create true equality for African Americans in our
classrooms. More than five decades later, our country has forgotten the lessons
of that historic moment.
Too many schools have created separate but unequal classrooms for Hispanic
Americans and other immigrant children. It's time we put an end to this
Sarah Means Lohmann and Don Soifer are education analysts at the Lexington
Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Va.