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Do Dual Language Programs Keep The Language of Privilege From Kids Who Need It Most?

Earlier this year, I wrote about Dual Language programs in New York City schools, and who really benefits from them.  Is it the non-English speakers that Chancellor Carmen Fariña touts, or is it the already English-speaking children whose parents, when shut out of Gifted & Talented programs, use the Dual Language option to secure yet another leg up?

I immigrated to the US at age 7, was put in an English-only class because English Language Learning (ELL) was not an option in that time and place, and was fluent within six months. I read the Department of Education boasting that “approximately half of the students who entered kindergarten in New York City public schools as English learner students were reclassified within four years,” and I see nothing to cheer about.

I have no doubt Fariña’s intentions are good. I don’t think she and Mayor de Blasio are sitting around City Hall, brainstorming ways to make NYC schools worse for under-served kids. But even the best intentions can misfire.

For instance, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent Revisionist History podcast discussing the damage done to African-American children by Brown v. Board of Education, made me think of my African-American father-in-law.

He grew up in Virginia under Jim Crow and, to this day, laments desegregation. “It ruined our Black schools,” he tells me. “They took the best Black teachers away.” Gladwell addresses the decimation of the Black teacher corps in his podcast, and the value of teachers of color is covered here.

My father-in-law eventually left Virginia and moved to New York City, where he sent his own three children to the best schools he could.

It was not a straightforward process and, giving credit where it’s due, it was his wife who did the work. She got her daughter and one son into Manhattan’s most exclusive school for the gifted. (I wrote about  this school here, which, despite popular misconceptions, is closer to a charter than a public school.) Obstacles included being asked at the admissions testing session, “How could a child like this know so much?”

“He watches a lot of Sesame Street,” my mother-in-law retorted.

But the school, which parents now spend thousands of dollars prepping their kids for, didn’t live up to her expectations. We call it, The Highly Coveted School Not Good Enough For My Mother-In-Law. She thought her children were being patronized.

So when an Upper East Side private school looking to join the 1970s offered her the opportunity to send her boys there, she pulled her son from the gifted school and, along with his brother, sent both to that bastion of privilege.

Why did this family do it? Why did the man who still mourns the loss of his childhood all-Black schools send his children to integrate an all-white one? It was so, my brother-in-law recalls his father saying, they could “learn to play the white man’s game.”

And there it is.

When David Brooks wrote his much-maligned piece in The New York Times about how we are ruining America, from which his silly sandwich anecdote is the only thing readers remember, this is what he was talking about. Brooks was arguing that affluent people are doing everything they can to keep those below them from achieving the same economic level, and that they are using education to do it. As someone who works in the field, I beg to differ. Many are working tirelessly to bring high-achieving schools to all kids, even if they disagree on the methodology (see: Farina, above). But that is not the point here.

The point, better illustrated by Robert Pondiscio in his rebuttal, is that:

There is a language of upward mobility in America. It has an expansive and nuanced vocabulary that it employs to nimbly navigate the world of organizations, institutions, and opportunities…. It is the language of privileged parents, affluent communities, and elite universities…. (But) you don’t learn that language in those places. They don’t let you in until or unless you demonstrate command of it.

And, in NYC, a Dual Language program for ELLs is the place where those who need instruction in the language of privilege the most, are the least likely to get it. Which severely limits their upward mobility. Which, Brooks is correct, ruins us all.

What do you think?

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