Separate unequal classes set bilingual education back
Chicago Sun-Times
May. 17, 2005


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 schools today.

 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 are Hispanics.

 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 immersion programs.

 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 modern-day segregation.

Sarah Means Lohmann and Don Soifer are education analysts at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Va.