NCLB's Impact on Bilingual Education in New York City

Last fall, the New York Times ran an article highlighting the growth and expansion of dual immersion programs across New York city. These programs often attract attention because they provide opportunities for native English speakers to learn a second language and have grown increasingly popular. But, paradoxically, while New York’s dual immersion programs are expanding, the number of English learners (ELs) enrolled in bilingual education is declining.

In a 2014 Educational Policy article, researchers Kate Menken and Cristian Solorza note that between 2002 to 2010 the percentage of NYC’s ELs enrolled in a bilingual program decreased from 39.7 percent to 22.3 percent. By contrast the percentage of ELs in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program increased from 53.4 percent to 70.2 percent. These trends continued in the 2014 school year: 79 percent of ELs were enrolled in an ESL program and only 20 percent were enrolled in a bilingual education program. That’s a surprising and significant change, given that state policy mandates bilingual education programs in schools that enroll 15–20 students in the same grade who speak the same language.

Most of the eliminated programs were transitional bilingual education (TBE) models. These differ from dual immersion programs in two significant ways: 1) they only enroll ELs and 2) are not designed to help students become bilingual and biliterate. Rather, TBE programs provide students with initial support in their home language with the goal of quickly transitioning them to English-only instruction.

With support from the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE), Menken and Solorza set out to uncover the reasons underlying this trend. They identified 10 schools across the city that had eliminated or reduced their bilingual education programs within the past five years and interviewed principals, assistant principals, and teachers to get a better understanding of their decision making process. Their research was focused squarely on school-level decisions due the fact that in New York City principals have discretion to decide which instructional model is used to support ELs in their building. 

Menken and Solorza argue that bilingual education programs in these 10 schools were eliminated for two primary reasons: accountability pressures under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and school principals’ misconceptions about bilingual education.

NCLB was a complicated law for ELs. On one hand, it made it harder for schools to ignore the performance of their EL students. On the other, its focus on rapid English acquisition and EL performance on math and reading assessments drove many schools and districts towards English-only instructional approaches for ELs. As one principal in the study noted “We got on the SINI [school in needs of improvement] list because the EL subgroup didn’t make progress on the ELA or other tests they took at the after one year they have to take the ELA....This is about No Child Left Behind.”

But is that reasoning sound? Well, in a 2015 article in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Menken and Solorza highlighted how principals’ overall lack of preparation and knowledge of ELs’ educational needs may have influenced their decisions to eliminate their school’s bilingual education program. This lack of preparation was reflected in principals’ misconceptions of bilingual education. Some school leaders (like the one quoted above) believed placing students in an English-only environment would help them learn English more quickly and so replaced bilingual programs with ESL programs “to force both teachers and students to speak in English.” But, as Menken and Solorza point out, this belief runs counter to research demonstrating that proficiency in the home language supports the acquisition of English.

Principals demonstrated the same beliefs when discussing bilingual teachers. They described these teachers as using the home language too much, and as deficient in their knowledge of English. Several principals even admitted to shutting down their bilingual programs as a way to “keep out” ELs. The researchers quote one principal as saying “I think there is a movement to not take, to say we don’t have a bilingual program so that we don’t get the students who want bilingual education.”

Menken and Solorza point out that their research highlights the discrepancy between school level practices and official state policies in regard to bilingual education. In 2011, the New York State Department of Education placed the NYC DOE under a corrective action plan to address multiple deficiencies in the education of ELs, including the reduction of bilingual education programs.  In response, they pledged to create 125 additional bilingual programs by 2013.

The city fell short of its goal and actually only opened 60 new programs between the 2011–12 and 2012–13 school years. That corrective action plan was replaced in 2014 by a Memorandum of Understanding between NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and then-NY State Education Commissioner John King that put pressure on the city to improve outcomes for its EL students. Some of the specified goals include ensuring that bilingual education programs are available to all eligible EL students by the 2018–19 school year and that a process is in place to prevent schools from declining to enroll EL students.

Menken and Solorza close out their articles with suggestions for improving the preparation of school principals and highlight a New York state project aimed at training principals to better meet the needs of their EL students. But their study has larger potential implications, given the recent enactment of the  Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The story they tell serves as a parallel for what might happen under the new law: A local actor/district is given broad discretion to determine the “best” educational model for ELs; misconceptions abound, bad decisions are made, and ELs performance does not improve; the state steps in and forces the district to construct a plan that will right their many wrongs.

The success of this model hinges on what happens next: when the district fails — like NYC — to meet its self-defined goal, what happens next? In this case, the state negotiated new goals for NYC and extended the timeline. Will this work? Will EL access to bilingual education improve? Will EL achievement improve with it? We’ll see.


This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team's work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select "Education Policy.""


Amaya Garcia is a senior researcher in the Education Policy program at New America where she provides research and analysis on policies related to dual language learners.