English-Language Learners

N.Y.C. Study Adds Fuel To Bilingual Ed. Debate

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 13, 2000 4 min read

New York City students who were enrolled in English-as-a-second-language programs in the early grades tended to exit those programs sooner and do better on recent districtwide tests than children who were assigned to bilingual education, a district study that followed 16,500 limited-English-proficient students between 1990 and 1999 shows.

The study, which was conducted by district staff members and scheduled to be released this week by the New York City board of education, also found that students who enrolled in either kind of language program for a few years in the early grades generally did better on the tests than district students overall.

The report downplays the findings comparing ESL programs, in which all subjects are taught in English, with bilingual programs, in which at least some subjects are taught in a student’s native language.

For More Information

The study will be available online at www.nycenet.edu/ beginning Sept. 13.

Some 54.4 percent of the students who had entered ESL programs as kindergartners in 1990 performed above the 50th percentile on a 1998 citywide reading test for 7th graders, compared with 39.7 percent of their classmates who had entered bilingual programs as kindergartners, the report shows. On the city’s 1998 mathematics test for the same grade, 70.1 percent of the students who had begun ESL as kindergartners met that standard, compared with 51.2 percent of their counterparts who had received bilingual education.

National debate over the relative merits of English-based and bilingual approaches to teaching English- language learners has been fierce, and Irving S. Hamer Jr., who represents Manhattan on the New York school board, argued that the report offers no conclusive evidence one way or the other.

Irving S. Hamer Jr.

“It was not the guiding question for the study,” Mr. Hamer said last week.

Two prominent observers who generally take opposite views on the language-instruction debate offered different interpretations of the findings.

Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University who frequently defends bilingual education as an option for LEP students, noted that the study didn’t take into consideration the socioeconomic status of the students in the programs. In New York City, he surmised, most of the children in bilingual education would be Hispanic or Haitian and possibly from poorer family backgrounds than children typically assigned to ESL programs. Such differences could affect their academic achievement.

But Jorge E. Amselle, the vice president for education for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington research and advocacy group that favors English-immersion methods, argued that socioeconomic differences are not as important for LEP students as for students in general when it comes to academic achievement.

If nothing else, he added, the positive results for the ESL programs show “there’s no harm in immersing children in English. They can do just as well or better in an English program.”

Neither Mr. Hakuta nor Mr. Amselle had seen a copy of the new report, but they were familiar with preliminary findings released in 1994 that generally showed the same results. ( “Bilingual-Ed. Report Spurs Questions and Complaints,” Nov. 2, 1994.)

Some Students Languishing

Mr. Hamer of the school board said the most important finding for him was that a surprising number of LEP students who are served by special-language programs in the nation’s largest school district generally have gone on to do well academically in mainstream classrooms.

That was particularly true of children who were enrolled in either an ESL or bilingual program in grades K-2 but tested out of the program in just a few years by passing an English-proficiency exam.

For example, 75.8 percent of the students who entered such a program as kindergartners in 1990 but finished the program two years later scored at or above the 50th percentile on the 1998 citywide math test. Across the district as a whole, 57.3 percent of students in the same grade met that standard.

About 186,000 of the district’s 1.1 million students have limited proficiency in English.

Not all the news from the study was good. While 56 percent of LEP students stayed in ESL or bilingual education programs for three years or less, 26 percent of them stayed in them for four to six years, and 11 percent stayed for seven or more years.

And students followed in the study who entered those special programs in grades 6 or 9 had much more difficulty completing them than children who were enrolled while in the lower grades.

Mr. Hamer said he was concerned that so many LEP students languish in the programs. “The longer you’re in [a program], the more difficulty you have and the less well you do,” he said.

The study will give school leaders much to think about as they develop policies for teaching LEP students, Mr. Hamer said. District officials refused to comment on the results last week.

“From everything we can tell, no one has ever done a longitudinal study with this large of a sample size [of LEP students] for this period of time,” Mr. Hamer said. “We think we have a hugely instructional body of information.”

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