Article Published in the Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette
Since last June, when California voters put an end to that state’s discredited bilingual education programs, policymakers, educators and parents around the nation have sought ways to make similar changes to help English learners in their own schools. Massachusetts is now taking important strides to improve life for its Limited English-Proficient students, and the timing could not be better.
Under the old California system, would-be English learners were segregated in isolated classrooms, often for 5 to 7 years or even longer, where they were taught in their native language at least 75 percent of the time. Many of these “bilingual” classrooms did not even begin teaching students to read and write English until the fourth grade. It is little wonder that only 7 percent of California’s 1.3 million “Limited English-Proficient” students were learning English well enough to graduate back into mainstream classes each year.
There are striking similarities, though, between the programs which were replaced in California and the ones currently employed in Massachusetts. Massachusetts has 44,000 students in bilingual education programs, where the focus is largely on learning in their native language, not in English. Of these, 80 percent are expected to graduate to mainstream classrooms within three years, while the others are left to fall further behind their peers.
Just as disturbing is the fact that up until last month, when students across Massachusetts sat down to take the Iowa reading test, 3 out of 5 third graders in bilingual programs were left out of the exam because their English skills were considered too poor. What motive could justify such an omission? And what message does this send to the parents of those children about the confidence school officials have in the programs being entrusted to teach their children English?
The recent decision by the state Board of Education to change that policy reflects a vital improvement in attitude toward those students and their families. It comes at a time when others around the nation are making similar changes. In Arizona there is currently a bill before the state legislature to limit and reform bilingual programs, and a movement underway to bring a referendum to the ballot next year which would effectively end them.
Recently, debates in cities as diverse as Denver, Chicago and Hartford have focused on how to teach English as early as possible in a child’s education, when they can learn a language most effectively and before they are allowed to fall too far behind their peers. The growing involvement of Hispanic leaders has been a major factor in the push for reforming bilingual education, with people such as Herman Badillo of New York City, the first Hispanic Member of the U.S. Congress, taking prominent roles.
At the federal level, the House of Representatives last Fall approved a bill to dramatically reform federal bilingual education programs. The “English Language Fluency Act” was passed too late in the legislative session to be considered in the Senate but is likely to be re-introduced this year. And with the scheduled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, Congress has a major opportunity to reshape vast and poorly-performing federal bilingual education programs.
Some Massachusetts policymakers have vacillated on the subject of bilingual education reform, calling for more extensive research on the subject. But there is much recent scientific evidence which reinforces the common sense and time-tested argument that languages can generally be learned more effectively at a younger age. And many top researchers, including the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, have found no long-term advantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language, which is the basis for most bilingual programs.
Perhaps the most powerful indication of this is going on right now across California, where teachers and educators, many of whom opposed the statewide initiative, are widely reporting that their children are outperforming expectations. “I expected that their self-esteem would be affected, and that they would feel inhibited, give up easily,” observed Yomy Duran, a second grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Instead, they are excited, motivated.”
Such accounts have been increasingly common in recent press coverage of the transition process, and seem to be replacing earlier skepticism and concerns over implementation delays.
The recent state Massachusetts Board of Education decision sends an important and timely message that Massachusetts cares about its English learners, but much remains to be done. As then-interim Education Commissioner David Driscoll commented earlier this Winter, “We can no longer stand by and watch children essentially fail because we have not been effective in making them proficient.”
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