Canard of the Month
September 1997

Sophistry 101: Diane Ravitch on
Bilingual Education

Winner of the Linda Chávez Award for Most Canards per Column Inch

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush Administration, has been a longtime critic of bilingual education. She argues that its success remains unproven by educational research and that limited-English-proficient (LEP) children would be better served by English-only instruction. Fair enough. Although her interpretation represents a minority view among those who have studied the research, this area remains a matter of legitimate public debate.

Yet in an op-ed article in the New York Times (5 September 1997), Ravitch relies on half-truths, discredited research, and misleading claims to argue that "bilingual education has been a dismal failure." Which raises a legitimate question: If she truly believes this, why does she need sophistry to make her case?

"The United States Department of Education recently reported a dropout rate of 30 percent for Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 24, more than double the dropout rate for blacks or whites in the same age group. The report also found that Hispanic students who spoke English well were far less likely to drop out than those who did not."

    Ravitch implies that bilingual education is to blame for high Hispanic dropout rates. But she neglects to mention that only a tiny fraction of Hispanic students are enrolled in bilingual classrooms. Nationwide figures are unfortunately lacking. But the state of California gathers excellent statistics in this area. Here are the latest:

    Number Percentage
    All public school students, K-12 5,612,965 N.A.
       Hispanic origin 2,229,941 100.0%
          Hispanic, LEP 1,107,186 49.7%
          Hispanic, enrolled in bilingual classrooms 394,750* 17.7%
          Hispanic, enrolled in English-only classrooms 1,786,700 82.3%

    *Estimate based on proportion of Spanish bilingual teachers.
    Source: California Department of Education, Language Census, 1996-97

    Not a single scientific study has linked bilingual education to high dropout rates which exceeded 50 percent for Spanish-speaking students in the Southwest before 1968.

    It's also worth noting that today's 30 percent figure includes many new immigrants who never attended school in the United States. According to the 1997 report Ravitch cites by the National Center for Education Statistics the proportion of  Hispanics aged 16-24 who dropped out of U.S. schools before completing the 12th grade was 19.6 percent (vs. a national average of 12 percent). While that's still unacceptably high, effective bilingual programs are less likely to be a part of the problem than a part of the solution.

"In 1994, a New York City Board of Education study showed that more than 90 percent of the students who started bilingual education in the sixth grade were unable to pass an English language test after three years of bilingual instruction. The students most likely to languish in bilingual classes for four or more years were Hispanic."

    This so-called "study" in reality little more than a computer printout failed to take into account students' socioeconomic level, parental education, or other key variables that affect student achievement. The National Academy of Sciences has cited this report as an example of "politicized" research by the opponents of bilingual education.

    What's more, research has shown that it typically takes LEP students from five to seven years to catch up to English-proficient peers on English-language achievement tests. That's because acquiring academic English the language they need for school is a long-term process as compared to acquiring oral communication skills.

"Despite the failure of bilingual education, the President and Congress have agreed to increase Federal financing for it to $354 million. That's double the amount spent in 1996, and it will trigger even more spending at the state and local levels."

    This figure includes $150 million for the Emergency Immigrant Education program, which reimburses schools for numerous costs associated with newcomer students. Very little of that amount goes to support bilingual instruction.

    The remaining $200 million restores funding for the Bilingual Education Act to the level approved for FY 1995 before it was slashed by Newt Gingrich & Co. following the "Republican Revolution" of 1994. Adjusted for inflation, this budget is 23 percent lower than it was in FY 1981, before a decade of education cuts by the Reagan and Bush administrations. The Bilingual Education Act now serves only about 10 percent of the nation's eligible children. And it includes no "trigger" that requires states or localities to increase spending.

"Moreover, the New York State Education Department is expanding such programs. In June, the state issued new guidelines for students from English-speaking Caribbean nations who speak or understand a Creole language. ... The state has listed nearly two dozen distinct Creole languages including Leeward Islands Creole, Kokoy, Papiamento and Bermudian Creole that must be taught when at least 20 students who speak the language are in the same building and the same grade. If these students had never left their countries they would have been instructed in English, which is the official language of the Caribbean nations identified by the state in this bizarre initiative. Now that they are residents of New York, they will be taught in their native patois. Apparently, the purpose of this state initiative is not to help students learn English but to maintain their culture."

    Ravitch resorts to the demeaning and unscientific term "patois" to express her contempt for creole tongues. In fact, these are fully expressive languages, quite distinct from English. (Some of those she cites, such as Papiamento, are not even based on English.) Contrary to her insinuation, the use of creole languages in bilingual classrooms is primarily intended to help LEP students acquire English. Helping to counteract cultural stigmas is a secondary, albeit significant, benefit associated with improved academic achievement for minority students. Who could object to this, other than those with a larger political agenda?

"[P]arents should be told about the poor track record of bilingual education and asked if they want their children enrolled in such a program. Those who want their children to learn English should be allowed to withhold consent. Under existing regulations, parents must navigate an elaborate bureaucratic process to withdraw children from bilingual education."

    By law, parents have an absolute right to withdraw their children from bilingual classrooms, not only in New York but in every other state. Responsible educators simply ask them to come in and discuss the matter to learn how bilingual education works and why it may be the best approach for their children. Owing to the prominence given to critics like Ravitch in the news media, many parents have never heard the other side of the story.

"If schools really want to teach English to children with limited proficiency, they can look to the Middlebury College Language Schools' intensive summer immersion program as a model. Students sign a pledge to communicate only in the new language. ... Structured immersion, as this approach is called, works so well that it is used exclusively by the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where the Pentagon teaches 24 different languages to more than 3,000 students each year."

    Indeed, English-only approaches are often successful for teaching adults who have mastered their first language. But, as Ravitch should know, the situation of younger learners is entirely different. There is virtually no research evidence that English-only immersion programs are appropriate for children who are still developing their basic cognitive-linguistic skills. For example, learning to read for the first time is unnecessarily complicated in a language that a student does not understand.

    Where are the English-only "success stories" for LEP schoolchildren? Ravitch knows they don't exist. That's why she is forced to rely on misleading analogies.

"Last year, the City University of New York established six English-immersion centers, in which students study English intensively for 25 hours a week to prepare them for college-level classes. Many students in the university's English immersion program are New York public school graduates whose language skills are so poor that they are not ready for college."

    In an immigrant-rich environment like New York, many students arrive too late in their school careers to become fully English-proficient before graduation, although they are able to master other subjects. Should such students be denied a diploma and prevented from continuing their education? New York State authorities say no. Why not encourage bilingual higher education including intensive courses in English as a second language? Again, only an ideologue could object.

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