Article Published in The Tribune (Phoenix, AZ)
Arizona right now faces a major opportunity to help its Limited English Proficient (LEP) students by reforming current bilingual education programs.
Bilingual education is widely used in school districts throughout Arizona. While the methods vary widely, nearly all rely on segregating English learners in classrooms where they are taught in their native language rather than in English.
Bilingual education advocates stress that children can learn English more effectively after they have already acquired fluency at speaking and writing in their native language. Subsequently, Arizona students often remain in bilingual programs for up to 7-8 years. But children in these programs learn English slower, later, and less effectively than their peers.
Eighty percent of Arizona’s English learners speak only Spanish at home, according to the Census Bureau. Native languages can be maintained and spoken at home, making intensive English-instruction in school that much more important. Furthermore, there is much recent scientific evidence which shows that languages can generally be learned more effectively at a younger age, while bilingual education programs wait until children are older before they begin to focus on teaching English.
Students in bilingual programs can remain segregated from mainstream classrooms through the eighth grade. This situation is made worse by vague and inconsistent entry and exit criterion used by bilingual program administrators. I have encountered stories of Arizona students placed in bilingual programs on the basis of their surname alone. Then there are the complaints of frustrated parents who feel that school officials have not been responsive to their requests to remove children from bilingual programs.
Parents are usually told bilingual classes are conducted half in English and half in Spanish, but in reality the classes are often held 80% in Spanish. And in many cases students learn an inferior Spanish to what they use at home, and parents actually complain that their children not only don’t learn English, but they don’t learn proper Spanish, either.
Arizona has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country. Unfortunately, most available indicators show Arizona’s Hispanic children falling behind in school. It is understandable and laudable, therefore, that the involvement of Hispanic parents and community leaders has increasingly emerged as a driving force behind bilingual education reform. Bilingual education in Arizona can be substantially improved through implementation of a few practical policy changes:
- Let parents choose how their own children learn English. Parents must be kept informed of their children’s progress, and school officials must be responsive to parents’ requests to remove children from bilingual programs.
- Limit the amount of time students spend in bilingual programs to three years or less. The Clinton Administration has said that three years is an appropriate amount of time for children to develop English fluency, and the House of Representatives last year also decided on a three-year limit for bilingual education program in passing the “English Language Fluency Act.”
- Establish standard criteria for the placement in and exit from bilingual education programs.
Additionally, there is much the federal government could do to help Arizona and other states improve their programs for LEP students. One important step would be voiding the hundreds of “compliance agreements” between local school districts and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. These cumbersome legal documents derive their authority from the 1974 Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision and often implicitly favor bilingual education. As former Congressman and Cabinet member Jack Kemp recently suggested, “What better or more fitting way can we demonstrate to our Hispanic and other language minority communities that we are working to enable the success of their children than to take this innovative steps to ensure that they are taught English as soon as possible once they enter school.”
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