The Courier News (Elgin, Ill.)
Earlier this year, Illinois’ Diamond Lake School District 76 made headlines for its dramatic improvements in test scores by English Language Learners. However, because District 76’s innovative instructional programs put it at odds with the state’s bilingual education requirement, the state cut off funding for these programs.
While the funding has since been restored, the situation highlighted the fact that it is time for Illinois to rethink its state law mandating bilingual education.
District 76 is a small, diverse elementary school district of 1,300 students from the Mundelein area. From 2004-2007, ISAT reading scores by these students improved by over 100 percent, and math scores by 60. The student population is 50 percent Latino, and 40 percent low-income. The families of English language learners are predominantly low-income, and eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Bilingual education did not work in District 76, even though there was a genuine and full commitment to bilingual education from 1998-2003. So for the past four years, District 76 has used an alternative research-based program called “Sheltered English,” which teaches ELL students primarily in English with Spanish language support only when needed. A dual-language program is offered too, and the choice of instructional programs is wide open to all English language learners.
Mandated bilingual education forces school districts to lower standards for hiring and retaining teachers. The shortage of good bilingual teachers is enough of a reason to move quickly away from this policy: good teachers in classrooms are essential for a successful school experience for English language learners.
In my experience, school districts intent on complying with a bilingual education mandate are regularly forced to choose between hiring a marginal bilingual candidate or not filling the vacancy. The shortage of good bilingual teachers, as well as instructional materials in Spanish, extends to all curricular areas.
In District 76, we undertook a number of substantial changes that led to higher student achievement by our English language learners. How can other school districts replicate our successes? Here are some key factors:
Place proper emphasis on developing English proficiency. The classroom teacher in the elementary grades must teach literacy for a minimum of two hours daily. The students below state standards should receive an additional 30 minutes of literacy instruction daily.
Hire good teachers, and dismiss incompetent ones. Teacher development must be a priority for the teacher and the school district. The teacher evaluation process should allow for the dismissal of unsatisfactory teachers.
Maintain strong curriculum and high standards. Curriculum in District 76 is aligned with Illinois state standards, which are rigorous. In District 76, the goal for English language learners is literacy and proficiency in English. The students’ home should be responsible for maintaining the native language and culture. I value the acquisition of multiple languages. However, learning English must be the priority.
There were other factors of course, as is usually the case in successful schools. These included maintaining as close to a 17-student average class size as possible, increasing parental involvement, supporting classroom teachers with reading teachers, and utilizing Spanish-language support to bolster English instruction.
Parents of ELL students want the same thing for their children as other parents. Often, however, for a variety of reasons they’re not familiar and comfortable enough with the school system to know how to complain.
A fundamental problem with mandated bilingual education is that it unfairly segregates English language learners. Naturally and logically, the more exposure to a language, the greater the likelihood of language acquisition.
There are many examples of bilingual education not working in school districts. If the outcomes were satisfactory, there would be little reason for change.
Giving individual school districts the flexibility to implement their own, research-based programs, such as sheltered English, can provide substantial educational benefits to students and families in those schools.
Bilingual education should be optional, not mandatory. The state of Illinois has a very diverse student population. Each local school district should have the authority to use instructional programs that meet the needs of the students in their district without losing government funding.
Diamond Lake School District Superintendent Roger Prosise has been a superintendent in small public suburban school districts in Illinois for 15 years. This article is based on a September 2008 paper, “English Language Learners in Illinois: What Worked and What Didn’t,” published by the Lexington Institute.
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