The Politics & Efficacy of Bilingual & ESL Education in New York City: Exploring the Challenges of English Language Learners

Graciella Bravo: Bronx, New York

Born and raised in New York City, Graciela Bravo spoke only Spanish as a child.  Immediately placed in a bilingual program, Graciela did not speak English until 5th grade. Graciela had all of her classes in Spanish except for three hours of English per week, which did not help her much.  

In high school she was put directly into the English monolingual program and struggled to keep up with the English, but found that her classes were much less intellectually challenging. Now, at 18 years old, she has regained her confidence, but expresses a mixture of feelings: regret that she did not attend monolingual school earlier, but disappointment that her own standards have been lowered by her monolingual education. 

Jahandul Islam: Brooklyn, New York

Jahandul immigrated to New York from Bangladesh four years ago, at the age of twelve.  Not speaking any English, he spent his first weeks sleeping through class. When he was finally placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes a few weeks later, Jahandul preferred to spend as much time there as possible. “I liked ESL because the teachers came and spent time with you. You get individual attention. I had five regular classes, and only one ESL so I would cut my other classes to stay in ESL, because I didn’t understand the other classes. The other teachers didn’t notice I was behind, because I never asked questions.”  Now, after four years he is trying to get out of ESL, but when asked if he would have preferred English immersion, he said not at all.  For him, it was important to have the opportunity to continue his other studies as he learned English.  

Tsering Yangchen: Queens, New York

When Tsering came to New York, she had already studied English for a number of years in Tibet, however her parents were informed she had to attend ESL. She was sent to a school called the Academy for New Americans, where all of the students were immigrants and, “no one knew English.” 

Although her English was fairly good, she failed the ESL exit test, because it included a science section and she had never taken a science course before. Now, although she has passed the ESL exit test, she has been sent to high school that is also entirely comprised of ESL students. She would like to transfer to a school that has both ESL and mainstream courses. In her assessment, ESL is helpful because a lot of students don’t know any English, but for her it has been very frustrating because she could have gone to a monolingual school right away. 

Annually, New York City Public Schools serve over 160,000 children who are designated as English Language Learners (ELL); the official term given to students with limited English abilities enrolled in bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.  Much of the information gathered in New York City suggests that ELL students are performing lower than their mainstream peers, raising questions of how successful these programs are.  In addition, in other parts of the country programs for ELL students have been under attack. By talking with students, scholars, and administrators, we hope to explore the efficacy and politics surrounding bilingual education. Specifically, what is the debate in New York City and how is it different from other areas in the country?  What larger theoretical and political issues underlie the debate around bilingual education?  What recommendations, if any, can we make regarding how to improve New York’s ELL education?

Bilingual and ESL education appeared in New York City’s public schools in 1974 following a law suit against the New York City Board of Education for failing to educate Puerto Rican students with limited English skills. Based on the premise that these students were unable to participate effectively in classes taught only in English, the winning Aspira Consent Decree mandated that students should receive access to an equal education by way of bilingual and ESL programs.   

Indeed, international human rights law directly addresses the languages rights of minority children as human rights. According the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child, which only the USA and Somalia have failed to ratify, “the education of the child should be directed to…the development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values.” It continues that “a child belonging to an [ethnic, religious, or linguistic minority] should not be denied the right…to use his or her own language.” 

Since the implementation of the landmark Aspira Consent Decree New York City’s ESL and Bilingual programs have been expanded to serve students speaking over 145 languages.   In New York today, ESL programs create classrooms where students from every country come together to learn English, while bilingual programs are offered in twelve different languages from Albanian to Urdu, to accommodate the city’s increasingly diverse immigrant population.

New York City has been defined by immigration since its inception, and this deeply impacts the public school system.  In 2000, of New York City’s eight million residents, 35% were foreign born, and 47.5% spoke a language other than English at home. Together, children of immigrants (first and second generation) comprise roughly 60% of the young people in the public schools.  

Unlike California and the Southwest, immigration to New York City is not dominated by one nationality, ethnic group, or socioeconomic background, which also poses peculiar dilemmas for designing adequate language policy in the school system. In fact, although there are many low-skilled workers in New York, fully one quarter of immigrants arrive with a college diploma, and many already speak English. Large inflows of immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America, East and South East Asia, and Eastern Europe, characterize New York’s immigrant communities. These immigrants are a part of the one million legal immigrants to the United States every year, a rate unlikely to decline any time soon.  

It is not surprising, then, that New York City has the country’s 2nd largest population of children classified as English Language Learners (ELL) after Los Angeles.  The 160,000 children enrolled in ELL programs make up 15% of the students in the City’s Public Schools.  ELL students are sent into two main tracks: bilingual classes which teach courses in students’ native tongue, while offering about three hours of English instruction per week; or ESL classes, which offer basic English courses to supplement the education of ELL students taking most of their courses in the monolingual track. 

Unfortunately, it does not look like these programs are fairing well, although the research has been inadequate and provides conflicting information. According to the Chancellor’s Report on the Education of English Language Learners, ELL students, particularly those entering the educational system during middle and high school years, are more likely to drop out and achieve lower on standardized tests than their mainstream peers. In addition, Dr. Matthijs Koopmans, a scholar at New York University’s Institute for Education and Public Policy, indicated that: “Way too many kids are being placed into Special Education programs because of language issues, not learning disabilities.” 

Some of the most troubling information concerns the caliber of ELL instruction. Fully 27% bilingual teachers and 14% ESL teachers are uncertified. This reflects the lack of emphasis on studying foreign languages in the US, and the scarcity of truly multilingual teachers qualified to teach all subjects. It is ironic that in a country characterized by massive immigration, finding qualified multilingual teachers is so hard.  In addition, bilingual students generally spend only 180 minutes per week in intensive English classes.  While the goal of all ELL programs is to transition students into the mainstream program by three years, it often takes much longer than that, particularly for students entering later in their educational careers. Graciella, for example, remained in bilingual education eight years, while Tsering, who spoke English upon arriving the USA, has been in ESL for three years and has been sent onwards to an ESL high school. To call these programs “bilingual” is perhaps misleading. With so little instruction time in English they might be more accurately described as monolingual programs in foreign languages. Many young people leaving these programs are unable to communicate well in English. Partially because of these shortcomings, the arguments against bilingual and ESL education are easy to find. 

Critiques of bilingual education stem from two very different camps: those people concerned with the efficacy of such programs, and those concerned about ensuring that English is upheld as the dominant language. For those concerned about the efficacy of such programs, including many parents of ELL’s, the main concern is that bilingual education is segregating their children and not teaching them the English skills they need in the working world. On the side of the critique of ELL programs are proponents of an English dominated society, who tend to advocate for English immersion or submersion programs, instead of bilingual and ESL education.

Regardless of their merit, criticisms of bilingual education might obscure the challenge of how a diverse society must educate its children. In principle, such an education should account both for their right to maintain their language, and their right to a quality education that will provide them opportunities meaningfully participate economically and politically. The challenging reality for New York educators, according to Dr. Nancy Foner of Hunter College, a specialist on immigration in New York City, is that “many immigrant students are entering this country not only with different languages, but also entirely different educational backgrounds.” For those entering at a later age, learning English by osmosis is not a viable option, especially when rudimentary math or reading must also be learned. With the steady inflow of diverse immigrants, New York City faces an enormous challenge meeting the needs of all its students. Underlying all of these issues are fundamental problems and issues in the public education system at large: under-funding, segregation, integration, and identity.


The correlation between identity and language is a central feature that has shaped the debate around bilingual schools nationally, but has been all but absent in New York. The cultural diversity of the United States is reflected in the manifold views of what it means to be an American, a definition which often varies around the country. As a city that identifies heavily with its immigrant past and present, the heated debate over English as the official or only language has been nearly absent. On the national arena, however, and especially in places like California, Colorado, and Arizona massive debates have taken place over the symbolic significance of offering public education in a language other than English.  In California, bilingual education was outlawed in 1998 with Proposition 227 known as the English for Children initiative. However, according to Dr. Foner, California has been unable to fully implement this initiative because,  “Even though they have been outlawed, the reality is that they have to teach classes bilingually because so many students cannot speak any English.” This anecdote informs us that no matter what happens in the discourse around American identity, ESL and bilingual programs will exist out of a necessity that won’t go away unless immigration patterns change. 

Despite the extremely high levels of ELL’s, the debate over ESL and bilingual education in New York has remained a debate around efficacy and not identity. The major reason why the identity debate does not exist in New York is because, according to Dr. Foner, “It would be politically too unpopular.” On the other hand, Dr. Foner points out that when bilingual education is attacked the critique is generally misplaced. Critics of bilingual education often argue that the aim of bilingual education is a project to maintain the cultural heritage of the different ethnic groups rather than learning English, but Dr. Foner called this “a myth, based on the fact that many people mistake 1st generation immigrants for the 2nd and 3rd generation, who overwhelmingly speak English.” While bilingualism and language maintenance could been seen as a resource to the society at large, bilingual and ESL programs were developed to assist the acquisition of English, not hinder it.

Regardless of the battle over American identity, one might easily raise concerns about the success of ELL education. Are ESL and bilingual programs providing young people with adequate language skills to enter the marketplace and get jobs, or keeping people locked in lower economic positions without opportunities to advance? Conversely, what is the impact on families and communities if children operate only in English and children and parents can no longer effectively communicate?  This issue of the value of language maintenance again has been ignored because of the political efficacy of asking such questions. As Dr. Koopmans stated, “It’s a hard argument to sell to taxpayers that they should pay for students to maintain their native tongue.”

In the end it really does seem to come down to issues of funding and taxes. It is hard to maintain bilingual education primarily because of the lack of funding for bilingual programs. According to Dr. Koopmans, this is exacerbated by the lack of research into the effectiveness of bilingual education, “which discourages people from investing in it.” On top of this, the persistent residential segregation of ethnic minorities plays heavily into school funding, because schools are funded through local property taxes. Underfunding impacts school performance, which in turn impacts students’ success.

Many of the problems that plague the ELL programs are the same problems that plague public schools in poor neighborhoods throughout New York. To make it worse, however, ELL programs are often the most marginalized groups within already poor and marginalized schools and school systems. Within the schools there is considerable ethnic and linguistic segregation and tensions, with ELL students on the receiving end of considerable hostility. As Graciela could well recall: “In the monolingual school me and the rest of the bilingual students sat separately from the other students in the lunchroom…then, we had our program moved to a bad monolingual school, and our classroom was attacked. Students came and were banging on the door. Our teacher was holding the door to keep them out and her wrist was fractured. That night our parents went to the Board of Education to make a complaint and finally we moved back to our original school.” Clearly, improving all schools and proactively addressing well-known problems of segregation will better the situation for ELL students as well as the effectiveness of the programs.

When you mention bilingual education, two very different things might come to mind.  If you are from the US you are likely to either imagine the education of immigrants in failing urban schools or, conversely, elite private schools educating young people for success in an increasingly globalized world.  From the awareness of this discrepancy alone, we may begin to detect a problem in discussing the “failure” or “success” of bilingual education. It is not the inherent legitimacy of illegitimacy of bilingual education models that is causing poor performance of many ELL programs, but rather the realities of under-funded schools, the lack of multilingual teachers, and persistent racial segregation, which is undermining their potential for success. Despite the many problems in ELL education, with such high levels of immigration, Dr. Koopmans matter-of-factly concluded that: “Bilingual programs will not end anytime soon.”  Indeed, the students we interviewed expressed both appreciation and criticism of the ELL programs they have attended, but all acknowledge that they needed additional institutional support developing their English skills.  

With one fifth of children in the US today either immigrants themselves or 2nd generation children of immigrants, the investment in bilingual and ESL programs should not be seen as a marginal concern to any of us. Clearly, based on the complexity of New York’s immigration flow, there are no easy answers. However, the experts we interviewed had many suggestions for how to improve ELL programs, beginning with investing resources, particularly in staff development. Dr. Koopmans made an additional suggestion: “We should view bilingual education as a source of enrichment for all.” Indeed, if adequately supported, bilingual and ESL education could practically and symbolically represent what the USA aspires to be: a truly multicultural society, which respects each individual’s differences as well as provides meaningful opportunities for all to succeed.



Graciella Bravo: Bilingual Student; the Bronx, New York

Dr. Nancy Foner: Disitinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, and immigration scholar

Jahandul Islam: ESL Student; Brooklyn, New York

Dr. Matthijs Koopmans: Professor at New York University’s Institute for Education and Public Policy, and scholar of bilingual education

Tsering Yangchen, ESL Student; Queens, New York

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