Article published in The Milwaukee (WI) Journal-Sentinel
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Wisconsin’s Hispanic population has surged by an astounding 23% over the past four years. Meanwhile, the English learner population has doubled in the past decade. The result is that Spanish-speaking students are flooding into Wisconsin’s public schools, placing an enormous strain on the state’s bilingual education programs, which are now in a state of disrepair.
Wisconsin urgently needs to revamp its bilingual programs and bring them into the 21st century. The state budget signed last month increased bilingual funding by $2.4 million. But money alone can’t buy English fluency – not when the funds flow into programs based on segregationist policies that cordon off immigrant students into separate classrooms, away from their English-speaking peers.
Right now, that’s what Wisconsin state law mandates, with few exceptions. The “separation” rules kick in once a school has a minimum of 10 to 20 learners speaking the same foreign language.
Lawmakers themselves were aware of the segregationist risk associated with such programs. The statutes state that none of the rules “shall be construed to authorize isolation of children of limited-English proficient ability or ethnic background for a substantial portion of the school day.”
But unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in Wisconsin. Bilingual students are often removed from mainstream classrooms for much of the day and instructed predominantly in their native language. Consequently, they are left with little opportunity to pick up English.
The result is that many students are stuck in segregated classrooms for years before they finally learn enough English to move on. Wisconsin was singled out by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition in its latest report as one of seven states with a very low rate – just 4.6% – of students reclassified as English proficient in a single year.
Immigrant students in Wisconsin schools speak 85 different languages. In 2003, there were over 34,000 English learners. The majority – about 55% – are Hispanic. Another 31% are Hmong.
Take the case of Kiet Tran, whose horror story made national headlines. The 15-year-old and his mother immigrated to the United States from Vietnam three years ago. The Madison school district placed Kiet, who didn’t speak English, in a bilingual program.
That might make sense, except for one fact – the teacher and students in this bilingual classroom only spoke Spanish. Kiet spent three hours a day being taught in a language he didn’t understand.
His American stepfather begged the district to place Kiet in classes where he would have a chance to learn English – and the other subjects he was missing. Officials refused, and the family had no choice but to leave Madison.
Kiet’s story may be extraordinary. But his outcome is not. At every grade level, in every subject, English learners lag behind English proficient students. In the statewide achievement tests known as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations, for example, 75% of English-proficient 10th-graders scored proficient and advanced in reading. Only 30% of English learners did.
Such drastic disparities have not been lost on policymakers. “This further confirms my view that Wisconsin should not have increased funding of bilingual education in our last budget,” observed state Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend). “The entire program needs a huge overhaul.”
Bilingual education simply isn’t working. Nor will simply increased funding for programs with poor track records. So what can be done to help these kids?
Modern structured immersion programs combine conventional classroom instruction with intensive English training for two or more periods a day. These programs often graduate younger students to mainstream, English-language classes in not much more than a year.
States in which voters have rejected bilingual education in favor of immersion have made impressive gains in closing the achievement gap. California is one. Arizona is another – in 2002-03, Arizona’s immersion students outperformed students in bilingual programs by one to four months in grades two to four; by six months in grade five; and by more than a year from grade six on.
It is crucial that Wisconsin’s immigrant students – kids like Kiet Tran – have the opportunity to learn English early on in their education, and before they fall further behind. Their parents came from Mexico, Laos, and around the world to offer their children better opportunities, opportunities that can only be had in America with English fluency.
Immigrant students are often surrounded by their native language at home, amongst their friends, and in their ethnic neighborhoods. They shouldn’t be isolated from English in school, too.
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