Article Published in the Boston Herald
Whether or not voters favor a pending ballot initiative to replace bilingual education with English immersion, it is easy to appreciate the serious dialogue that is now taking place about how well Massachusetts’ current system serves English learners.
The success of the state’s growing population of English learners will be critical to its future. Success in an evolving economy demands stronger communications, and English language, skills than ever before. If the bilingual programs currently in place in Massachusetts’ schools really are as bad as critics claim, a major disservice is being done to some 40,000 students and their families – one that will seriously impact their ability to participate constructively in society and in the economy.
What precisely is the problem with bilingual education here? Many policymakers insist that these programs, being uniquely suited to the Commonwealth, defy valid comparison to the widespread bilingual reforms going on in other states. But, in fact, Massachusetts’ bilingual programs display many of the same problems found in other urban bilingual classrooms around the nation (including some of the worst).
1. There is currently little, or no, accountability for student progress learning English. Many students are not evaluated for improvement in English fluency until their third consecutive year in the state. When bilingual programs do report student test scores, they often do so selectively, giving an exaggerated impression of their effectiveness.
2. Academic progress by English learners, when measured, is often inadequate. In one of Springfield’s bilingual programs, English learners at two of the three schools scored lower on the reading post-test on average than they did on the pre-test a year earlier. In another, reading scores of native English speakers participating alongside English learners in the “two-way bilingual inclusionary program” declined in all four of the program’s schools. A report filed by a Boston middle school’s bilingual program acknowledged, “the data show no evidence of improvement” in student test scores.
3. English learners remain in segregated “bilingual” classrooms for too long. Bilingual supporters claim that 80 percent of Massachusetts’ bilingual students transition to English-speaking, mainstream classrooms within 3 years. While the state Department of Education does not currently compile official data to confirm or refute this figure, available numbers from individual programs indicate these estimates to be highly optimistic. One major bilingual program in the Boston Public Schools graduated only 9 percent of its English learners over 3 years.
4. Bilingual programs often emphasize everything except teaching English. Programs around the state elect to devote resources and staff time from these programs to everything from teacher workshops to translating a dictionary into Cape Verdean Creole to “structured Clubs” for Chinese yo-yo and palm reading. Beyond the dubious value of many of these activities, they often come at the expense of the only instructional time these students will have to acquire necessary English-language skills.
5. The current system denies most parents the right to choose the best approach for their children. State law requires that schools provide “transitional bilingual education” when at least 20 students are enrolled with the same non-English native language – but offers no other options for parents who would prefer an English immersion approach.
Earlier this year the federal No Child Left Behind Act included a number of important reforms that will benefit English learners. As a result, states must now demonstrate to the federal Department of Education that they are making continued progress toward advancing English fluency. But it is now up to Massachusetts to bring about the real reforms necessary to fix these programs, and to provide all of its students the English language skills they need.
—Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute. His email address is email@example.com.
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