Article Published in The Denver Post
Last week, activists in Denver led by retired University of Colorado professor Dr. Charles King announced that they are launching a ballot initiative to replace bilingual education in Colorado. The initiative is based on California’s Proposition 227, which effectively ended most bilingual programs there after winning decisively in June 1998. In fact, the Colorado version is tougher: it explicitly does not allow any districtwide waivers and says classes must be entirely (not just predominantly) in English. More than half of Colorado’s school districts have English learners, and more than one-quarter have bilingual programs.
It is no coincidence that bilingual education reform has become one of the fastest-moving public policy movements in the country. An Arizona law passed last year implemented unprecedented changes: the law ensures parental consent and requires school districts to monitor the progress of English learners. Connecticut passed important reforms as well, and in Massachusetts legislation has been introduced to end all bilingual education. California passed a number of additional bilingual reforms in 1999, including one law offering school districts a $100 bonus for each child who successfully “graduates” from English leaner to English proficient.
In the past, bilingual education reform has often been perceived as an issue dominated by conservative Republicans, but as the evidence has become overwhelming this dynamic has changed. In fact, all of the above changes were sponsored by Democrats, who understand that these reforms are about helping young people, particularly Hispanic young people, who could not be more critical to the nation’s future.
Official U.S. Department of Education documents obtained by the Lexington Institute show that some Colorado bilingual programs have shown remarkably little success improving students’ English skills. In one joint program between five rural school districts in North-Central Colorado, only 18% of students in grades 3-12 showed any gains at all. Other such programs spent federal bilingual dollars on purchasing Spanish-language math textbooks, planning video “broadcasting” within and between schools, and sending teachers to attend the National Association of Bilingual Educators’ national conference in Albuquerque.
Bilingual programs vary in methodology but share a common reliance on segregated instruction in students’ non-English native language. Advocates of the bilingual approach assert that children can learn English more effectively after they have already acquired fluency in their native language. As a result, students can remain in these programs for up to seven or eight years, or even longer. Many do not even begin teaching written English until the fifth grade, when it is much harder for children to make up lost ground.
Furthermore, much recent scientific research suggests that children who learn a second language at a younger age can do so more effectively, more quickly, with even less likelihood of a pronounced accent. To many parents and educators, this just underscores what their common sense already tells them. But once students reach the third and fourth grade without adequate English skills, it becomes much more difficult for them to regain the ground they have lost.
As California schools begin to close out their second full year under the new law, more and more evidence indicates that children are thriving under English immersion. One major study by the San Jose Mercury News found that second-grade English learners in mainstream classrooms averaged at the 35th national percentile in reading results on the Stanford-9 test, while their peers in bilingual classrooms averaged in the 20th percentile. In math, second-graders in mainstream classrooms scored at nearly the 43rd national percentile, while those in bilingual classrooms averaged just below the 31st percentile.
That message has carried far, even to Washington, D.C. In October the U.S. House of Representatives passed unprecedented bilingual education reforms, which the Senate is due to consider in the coming weeks. The legislation would require school districts to provide vital information about such programs to parents and to obtain their consent before children are placed in bilingual or other programs tailored for English learners. It also eliminates the current rule which mandates that at least 75% of federal bilingual dollars be spent to support instruction in students’ non-English native languages, with the remainder reserved for “alternative” programs – classes that teach English in English.
Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO), one of the leaders behind that legislation, observed, “Bilingual education is doing a terrible disservice to our Hispanic and other language minority young people. Providing them with the English language skills they need is critical to ensuring them the opportunities for success they deserve.”
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