NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Failure Of Bilingual Education

May 1, 1996

Bilingual education began in the late 1960s as a modest federal program to help impoverished Mexican-American children, half of whom could not speak English when they entered the first grade. Critics suggest it has become a $5.5 billion-a-year effort to preserve dual language use, principally by Hispanic students, and that it actually harms students.

Bilingual education is based on the theory that children can learn math, science and other subjects in their native tongue, while taking special classes to learn English.

However, according to researchers, most controlled studies of low-English-proficiency (LEP) students have found that bilingual education is no more effective or even less effective in improving students' English skills than doing nothing. Specifically:

  • For teaching students to read English, 78 percent of the studies show bilingual education to be either no different from or worse than doing nothing.
  • For teaching grammar, 93 percent show bilingual education to be either no different from or worse than doing nothing.
  • And for math, 91 percent of the studies showed bilingual education to be either no different from or worse than doing nothing.

There are alternatives to bilingual education that studies indicate are more effective, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and structured immersion. In ESL, students attend regular classes, but are pulled out of class for language instruction. In structured immersion, subject matter is taught in simplified English.

Almost the only children instructed in reading, writing and other subjects in their native language are Hispanic. Because of the difficulty of finding bilingual teachers, native speakers of Asian, African and European languages are usually put in immersion-type programs. This may account for different success rates among these groups.

  • Nearly 30 percent of Hispanic students dropout before finishing high school, a rate four times that of whites and three times that of blacks.
  • A 1994 New York study found that 80 percent of LEP students who enrolled in English-immersion classes graduated to mainstream English within three years, while only half the students in bilingual classes tested out that quickly.

Nationwide, at least 25 percent of low-English-proficiency students get no help at all, according to the U.S. Department of Education, although some 2.4 million children are eligible for bilingual or ESL classes.

Source: Jorge Amselle, ed., "The Failure of Bilingual Education," 1996, Center for Equal Opportunity, 815 15th Street, NW, Suite 928, Washington, DC 20004, (202) 639-0803.


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