English-Language Learners

N.Y.C. Bilingual-Ed. Report Spurs Questions and Complaints

By Lynn Schnaiberg — November 02, 1994 4 min read

A report that has raised questions about the effectiveness of bilingual-education programs in New York City schools has come under criticism from advocates of such programs.

The report, released late last month by the city’s board of education, shows that limited-English-proficient students who spend most of their time learning in English fare better in the short run than their peers in the schools’ bilingual programs.

Those students also pass through their programs into regular classes more quickly than students in bilingual programs.

In releasing the report, Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines emphasized that it was only initial data from a longitudinal study of L.E.P. students. He likened drawing policy conclusions from it to “judging a book from reading only the first page.”

But the report has drawn the ire of some bilingual-education advocates and educators who fear that it will be used to discredit bilingual education.

While acknowledging that the city’s programs are not perfect, they criticized the report for focusing on the speed with which limited-English-proficient students learn English and leave the special programs.

“They’ve skewed the results by looking only at these measures,” argued Migdalia Romero, a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York who has studied students nationwide who are learning a second language. “The effects of bilingual education don’t show up right away; they’re long term.”

The 154,000 L.E.P. students in New York City make up about 15 percent of the system’s enrollment of more than one million. They speak more than 130 languages, but nearly 68 percent are native Spanish-speakers.

Mr. Cortines said he would establish a panel of teachers, parents, and administrators to use the report to help identify those schools and programs that are working and those that are not.

Debate Over Program Cost

The report from the nation’s largest school system again brings to the forefront the often highly politicized debate among educators over the best way to educate L.E.P. students: whether to focus on developing English-language skills as quickly as possible or to do so gradually, allowing students to learn key subject areas in their native languages.

“This study does not come anywhere near closing that debate,” Mr. Cortines said in a statement.

The study coincides with sharp budget cuts in the city’s schools and debates over the cost of providing service to L.E.P. students. Some observers said they feared the report would make such programs an easier budget target.

Earlier last month, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s office released figures that said average per-pupil spending on bilingual-education students was $7,289, compared with $5,149 for others.

In contrast, the board of education’s budget office estimates that it costs an average of $974 more than it does for other students to provide services for L.E.P. students in elementary and middle schools and $1,215 more in high schools.

The report’s findings are not surprising, observers said. English-as-a-second-language programs emphasize learning English as quickly as possible while many bilingual-education programs do not.

New York City students enter and leave E.S.L. and bilingual programs according to their scores on English-proficiency tests.

Program Quality Varies

While Spanish-speakers fill the bulk of the city’s bilingual classrooms, bilingual programs are also offered in Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, Korean, Arabic, Vietnamese, Polish, Bengali, French, Urdu, and Albanian.

Schools with a specified number of students who speak the same language in the same grade must establish a bilingual program. Students enter an E.S.L. program only if there is no bilingual program or if their parents opt for it.

The study tracked students through June 1994 who entered the schools in kindergarten and 1st grade in fall 1990 and grades 2, 3, 6, and 9 in fall 1991.

While 79.3 percent of the kindergartners in E.S.L. programs had left the program in three years, only 51.5 percent of those in bilingual programs had done the same. Even among students who had similar scores on English-proficiency tests upon entering school, those in E.S.L. programs left their programs faster.

Students who left E.S.L. programs within one to three years consistently scored higher on the citywide English-reading-comprehension exam than their peers in bilingual programs. But after the fourth year, the students in bilingual programs inched ahead of their E.S.L. peersa trend seen in many earlier studies. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

‘No Prior Intent’

Luis O. Reyes, the Manhattan borough’s representative on the city school board, had requested the study. Mr. Reyes had worked on a 1992 board study that found that school officials had focused more on complying with the laws surrounding L.E.P.-student programs than on the programs’ quality.

What Mr. Reyes said he asked for was an analysis of the city’s programs, looking at everything from teacher preparation to classroom materials and dropout rates.

But Robert J. Tobias, the study’s author and the director of the board’s office of educational research, said those were not his instructions. “This report was never meant to be the ultimate academic work on the issue,” Mr. Tobias said, noting that future studies tracking the same group of students will look at some of the variables that Mr. Reyes underscored. “There was no prior intent to paint anything in any particular way.”

But as a result of the report’s release, Mr. Reyes said, “the [bilingual] program is being dumped on without an understanding of all the variables that make up these results.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Bilingual-Ed. Report Spurs Questions and Complaints


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