Riley declares English obsolete
By Nicholas Stix
posted May 29, 2000
In one of the year's most underreported stories, on March 15, Education
Secretary Richard Riley announced that the cure for Hispanic students'
high dropout rate is to educate them ... in Spanish! Riley called for
the creation of 1,000 "dual-language" (read: Spanish-language)
schools over the next five years. The Secretary argued that bilingual
education (BE) -- which he referred to euphemistically as "dual language
instruction" and "two-way immersion" -- had been documented
as having helped Hispanic kids excel in school, "preserve heritage,
and promote the bilingualism needed in a global economy."
In truth, BE is the greatest method ever devised to arrest language acquisition.
Poor, huddled masses the world over still see America as freedom's last,
best hope. Prior to the infliction of BE in the late 1960s, millions of
immigrant children and American-born children of immigrants had learned
English through the "immersion" method, in which one spends
all, or almost all of one's class time learning in English. In America,
immersion has traditionally been practiced in English as a Second Language
In a speech at Bell Multicultural School in Washington, DC, Secretary
Riley insisted that students' "primary language" [read: Spanish]
ability be seen as an "asset," not a limitation, and proclaimed
the necessity of being "bi-literate," in order to compete in
the global marketplace.
Secretary Riley was selling globaloney, with a little Orwellian spice.
The language of the global marketplace is English. And increasing numbers
of American children of Hispanic immigrants come from families that are
illiterate in Spanish. What kind of an "asset" is that?
The bilingual movement began during the 1960s, when Hispanic activists
insisted that it was politically and pedagogically unacceptable to immerse
Hispanic children in the English language. Although there was no evidence
that BE worked, the activists succeeded in institutionalizing it through
the 1968 Bilingual Education Act.
According to BE activists' initial public pronouncements, students would
begin by spending equal amounts of class time using their "primary"
(i.e., their parents') language and English. After two or three years,
they would be mainstreamed into classes that were taught primarily or
exclusively in English. In practice, however, BE students have spent 80-100
percent of their time learning in a foreign language, often for their
entire school careers. But you can only learn English through English!
For scholarly evidence of "two-way's" efficacy, Department of
Education (DOE) spokeswoman Melinda Ulloa referred me to the Washington,
DC-based Center for Applied Linguistics (www.cal.org). While aggressively
supporting BE, "CAL" provides no proof that it works.
Rosalie Pedalino Porter, the founder and former president of the Washington,
DC-based READ (Research in English Acquisition & Development) Institute,
and a national authority on bilingualism, told me Secretary Riley's plan
is "not a bad idea for an experiment, but it should not be promoted
wholesale. He shouldn't pretend to parents that this is a proved, successful
method that is going to work for immigrant children. I don't know of a
school yet, that documented a dual immersion [BE] program in which all
children learned both languages."
All available evidence shows that, rather than producing "bilinguals,"
BE produces "non-linguals" who are not fluent in any language.
From 1990-94, New York City's pro-BE Board of Education conducted a longitudinal
study of three-year exit rates into normal English classes for "limited
English proficiency" (LEP) children. Children placed in ESL classes
had a 54 to 373.9 percent higher success rate, respectively, than peers
who were placed in BE classes. Children placed in ESL in kindergarten
had a 54 percent higher success rate than peers placed in BE; second-graders
had a 205.4 higher success rate; and sixth-graders had a 373.9 higher
In a sworn affidavit published in the anthology, The Failure of Bilingual
Education, retired Brooklyn assistant high school principal Edwin Selzer
testified that, "once a child was in a bilingual education program,
he ... was never mainstreamed into regular English-speaking classes."
Selzer reported, too, that "many students graduating from Eastern
District High School were illiterate in both Spanish and English."
CAL, which would have all children spend at least six years in a "bilingual"
environment, calls its preferred BE method "90-10," as in 90
percent Spanish, and ten percent English. That's a novel way of redefining,
DOE spokeswoman Melinda Ulloa told me, "the Secretary is referring
to one approach not just for immigrant children, but for native-born children."
Ulloa also noted, "research and studies show that the earlier you
acquire a language, the better." In other words, the Secretary of
Education and CAL are looking to extend a method that has been proven
to retard Hispanic children's linguistic and intellectual development,
to all public school children.
Bilingual activists apparently subscribe to the political philosophy whereby
in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
This piece appears in the June 12 issue of Insight
magazine. This is Nicholas Stix's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.