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Bilingual Education: A Failed Experiment on the Children

IP-6-1997 (June 1997)
Author: Sheldon Richman

PDF of full Issue Paper
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Executive Summary

[Note: The HTML/Web version of this document does not contain the many endnotes. A printed copy of the paper, containing the endnotes, is available from the Independence Institute, at 303-279-6536, for eight dollars.]

  • Bilingual education is based on the theory that the best way to make minority-language children proficient in English is to first strengthen their skills in their native languages.
  • A large body of research shows that native-language instruction is an inferior method of moving limited-English-proficient children to full proficiency.
  • Of the 18 million dollars spent on bilingual education in Colorado, 8 million is for illegal immigrants.
  • In Denver, 80% of students in bilingual programs fail to make significant progress towards learning English even after two years of bilingual education.
  • Sixty percent of children who are forced into bilingual programs already have English as their dominant language.
  • “Bilingual education” as it exists in most public schools is not really bilingual. Rather, students are instructed solely in one language–typically Spanish. In fact, it is a gross perversion of the English language to label “bilingual” the forcing of students into Spanish-only classrooms.
  • There have been dozens and dozens of studies on the results of bilingual education. Hardly any of them show that bilingual education is superior. Indeed, the weight of research finds bilingual education to be inferior to just putting students in classes taught exclusively in English. Programs which aim to move students rapidly to full English proficiency (such as programs which rely on native-language instruction for a year or less, and which include a good deal of English right from the start) also outperform Spanish-only methods by a wide margin.
  • Studies show that the longer a student stays in a segregated classroom, which does not use English as the primary means of instruction, the worse his or her academic performance–even in subjects like math, where language is less important.
  • The American Institutes for Research evaluated federally supported bilingual programs and found, startlingly, that only 16 percent of students spoke only Spanish. Eighty-six percent of project directors said that when children became functional in English, they nevertheless stayed in the program.
  • A 1996 survey of opinion was commissioned by the Center for Equal Opportunity asked six hundred Hispanics were asked to rank five educational goals randomly given them.

◦ Fifty-one percent ranked as No. 1 “learning to read, write, and speak English.”

◦ Only 11 percent put the highest priority on “learning to read, write and speak Spanish,” and only 4.3 percent selected “learning about Hispanic culture.”

◦ When asked if children of Hispanic background should be taught Spanish before English or taught English as soon as possible, 63 percent said that children should be taught English as soon as possible. Only 16.7 percent chose the first option.

◦ In the final question, 81.3 percent of Hispanics agreed with this statement: “My child should be taught his/her academic courses in English, because he/she will spend more time learning English.” Only 12.2 percent agreed that “My child should be taught his/her academic courses in Spanish, even if it means he/she will spend less time learning English.”

◦ Similarly, a 1988 survey by the Educational Testing Service for the U.S. Department of Education found that only 12 percent of Mexican-American parents wanted their children taught Spanish in school if it reduced the time for English instruction. Only 11 percent of Asian-American parents wanted that. Moreover, less than one percent of those parents said they want the schools to teach ethnic heritage.

  • Bilingual education as is it currently exists is not really a program to help children learn English slowly. Rather, it is a program designed by and run for the benefit of radicals who do not want children from Mexico, Puerto Rico, or other Spanish-speaking locales to assimilate and join the rest of American culture. Bilingual education is a subterfuge for segregation, and therefore contrary to the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that public schools could not deliberately segregate students by race or ethnicity.
  • Bilingual education is a by-product of government monopoly schools. In a world of school choice and educational freedom, hardly any families would choose it.

Policy Recommendations:

  • The legislature and school boards should immediately adopt policies to prevent students from being forced into segregated “bilingual” classrooms against their will.
  • The legislature and school boards should adopt policies abolishing any “bilingual” program that continues longer than two years.
  • Any steps taken to increase educational freedom–including vouchers or bolder steps towards separation of school and state– will help bring out the end of bilingual education as we know. The program exists its current size not because parents and students want it, but because government school monopolists impose it.

Public schools in America have always been laboratories for social engineers. The children are the guinea pigs. The people in the schools of education, departments of educational psychology, the teachers unions, and the bureaucracy are the pseudoscientists who assure the parents of America that they know best while subjecting their children to faddish theories and politically motivated practices.

This was true from the very beginning. Horace Mann launched the “common school” movement with the promise that a national culture could be engineered by enlightened and well-meaning educational theorists who would put the nations children through a scientifically conceived curriculum designed to create good citizens. The curriculum was in no sense scientifically designed; the mantle of science was used to hide a well-meaning but nevertheless politically motivated agenda. That approach to education necessarily interfered with the prerogatives of the family.
In other words, bureaucrats made decisions that should have been made by parents.

The history of public, or state, schools has been a series of similar episodes. Terms such as “life adjustment,” “new math,” “whole language,” “values clarification,” and “family life” have become notorious shorthand for the social engineering approach of the schools. Should “bilingual education” be on that list? It seems so.