In response to a 2007 report revealing rampant problems, a U.S. district judge ruled last month that 100 Chicago public school principals must complete depositions about their schools’ bilingual programs.
That process is now moving forward, but the underlying cause of the problem has little to do with individual schools or educators themselves. The real troublemaker here is an Illinois bilingual education law that stands in the way of progress for 200,000 English learners statewide.
The public acknowledgment of the failure of Chicago’s bilingual education program is long overdue. But the main burden of responsibility should not be placed on hardworking Chicago principals, many of whom have been given a seemingly impossible task. By mandating that they give their English learners bilingual education, Illinois is putting the children at an educational disadvantage.
The problem is that the bilingual education program itself is broken. According to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), less than a quarter of English language learners in Chicago Public Schools’ bilingual program reached state English proficiency levels in 2007. The same year, only 34 percent of students in their sixth year of bilingual education transitioned to English-only classrooms, according to a Chicago Public Schools report.
Even though Chicago has consistently been slower than other parts of the state to move its bilingual students into English-only instruction, bilingual education isn’t scoring well in the rest of Illinois either. Of those participating in the program state-wide, 36 percent of those tested were classified as “non-readers” or “non-writers” in English by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).
Only 34 percent were competent readers and 27 percent competent writers, according to the ISBE’s 2005 report, the most recent year for which state-wide information was publicly available.
Only 25 percent of the kids who were transitioned into regular classrooms after four years of the bilingual program were proficient in reading, writing and speaking.
A new direction is urgently needed for these children.
Illinois’ latest creative remedies haven’t created a solution to the problem of how to educate the state’s growing language-minority population. Last year, the number of English language learners increased to 192,000 from 166,000 in 2006.
The state board has estimated that over the next three years an extra 1,226 bilingual teachers would be needed to fill the gap created by state law requirements. So the state has decided to import teachers from Mexico. Officials from across Illinois are going to Mexico City this month to see if they can get Mexican teachers to come to Illinois to serve as bilingual teachers.
Instead of using taxpayer dollars to fly in teachers from Mexico, why not use a method of teaching that has already proven to be both cost effective and successful? With English-based programs of instruction improving test scores from California to Maine, concerned policymakers and educators should consider this effective alternative.
Educators in Illinois’ Diamond Lake District in Mundelein have done just that by teaching English learners in, dare we say it . . . English. While they were initially threatened for evading Illinois’ bilingual law, they are now getting their federal and state bilingual program funding returned, provided that they make some relatively minor changes to their winning formula.
Officials could no longer ignore the fact that this tiny district with more than 50 percent Hispanic students had drastically improved test scores in just five years. Last year 78.6 percent of the Diamond Lake’s English learners – who comprise one out of five students there – had scored above state performance in math, and 71 percent had done so in reading.
Illinois’ bilingual education law is an extreme measure that harms the very children it purports to help. Meanwhile, there’s a proven way to help children quickly learn the language they need to succeed academically and in the workplace: Provide them with instruction mainly in English in the earliest grades, while speaking to them in their native language only to provide explanations for difficult lessons.
Illinois should stop cordoning off English learners from their native English-speaking peers. That simple change would not only fix a failing program, but would go a long way towards giving these children a chance at succeeding in language and in life.
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