Mayor Bloomberg realizes bilingual education is complex

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jun 26 14:42:59 UTC 2003

>>From New York Times, June 26, 2003

In Spanish or English, Double Talk


TO figure out what's happening to bilingual education in New York, listen
to the political background music, not the words. Because the words won't
help much. Phrases like "instructional coherence," "language allocation
policy" and "instructional alignment" dominated on Tuesday at the mayoral
news conference on bilingual instruction, almost obscuring the underlying,
if unspoken, message that despite his pledge to overhaul the bilingual
system, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has not.

It will change and maybe improve for the 134,000 students who need to
learn English. The mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein pledged to
spend $20 million more for bilingual instruction. There will be more
teachers and training, a greater emphasis on English as a second language
and on dual language instruction. But there will not be a shake-up. "He
backed off," said Gerson Borrero, editor in chief of the daily
Spanish-language newspaper El Diario/La Prensa. "This is not dealing with
the real problem. The $20 million is needed, but it cannot remain in the
same structure."

It apparently will, though. Asked how the new system will differ from the
status quo, Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam answered, "a huge investment in
capacity building, and materials." A central criticism of bilingual
instruction is that it impedes the learning of English because students
are taught many subjects in their own languages, sometimes for years. Will
that change? Somewhat. As Ms. Lam explained it, students would initially
take 60 percent of their classes in their native language, including
history, science and other core subjects.  In the rest of their classes
they would get help with English, partly in their own language. The goal
is to move those proficient enough in English out of bilingual classes
when they are ready. Which is the goal right now.

Offered Mr. Bloomberg: "There is no one size fits all." Time for more
political music. Here is what was not said. The word "immersion" was never
uttered on Tuesday. English immersion is favored by critics who contend
that bilingual instruction can become a crutch.  Californians, including
many Latinos, voted in 1998 to dismantle bilingual education in favor of

But while bilingual education has its critics in New York, they tend to
want it reformed rather than scratched. The system has an entrenched
constituency with origins in 1974, when Aspira, a civil rights group, sued
and later signed a settlement requiring that students be taught at least
partly in their native language. Education and advocacy groups grew
increasingly invested in the system and advocates of immersion don't have
the influence in New York that they have elsewhere. Mr. Bloomberg, an
advocate of immersion as a mayoral candidate, seemed poised to change that
political calculus. "There must be total immersion for youngsters," read
his campaign policy paper on education. He reiterated his priorities in a
mayoral debate and so worried supporters of bilingual instruction that
they were anticipating a revolution.

WHAT happened? "I have never wavered from my belief that if you do not
speak good English and have good academics that you will be able to share
in the American dream the way everybody would like to," the mayor said,
adding: "I have never changed my view." But Democratic Assemblyman Peter
M. Rivera of the Bronx said at the announcement that he and others
"thought the mayor was going to eliminate bilingual because that is what
he threatened." Mr. Rivera suggested that City Hall's wide consultation
with Hispanic communities and legislators influenced the policy.

Mr. Borrero of El Diario/La Prensa cited politics. "He's feeling the
heat," he said of Mr. Bloomberg, whose approval rating among Hispanic New
Yorkers was 19 percent in a recent New York Times poll. Deputy Mayor
Dennis M. Walcott said: "The mayor's policy balances the needs of a
variety of different groups in the city that has a variety of different
language needs. Politics has nothing to do with it." Or maybe it was
politics in the broader sense. Mr. Bloomberg had such a smashing success
in winning control of the school system that perhaps he forgot that three
mayors and decades of political battles preceded his victory. Change in a
complicated city crowded with special interests tends to take awhile.

"There is no easy answer," Mr. Bloomberg said of bilingual education. '`It
is a very complex thing." Now that was easy to understand.

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