Article Published in the Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette
State Senator Guy Glodis plans to introduce important new legislation this week which would radically change how Massachusetts English learners are taught the vital language skills they need. The Glodis plan requires that every school-aged child be placed in English-language classrooms, and where necessary creates temporary transition programs employing sheltered English immersion not intended to exceed one year.
Glodis, a Democrat, followed with interest developments surrounding the passage of California’s Proposition 227, which effectively ended that state’s poorly-performing bilingual education programs except in special circumstances. The California “English for the Children” law passed in June, 1998, receiving press coverage in national and regional newspapers around the nation, and policymakers in other states have watched eagerly to see what effect it would have.
When recent reports revealed precisely how well English learners, especially younger ones, placed in mainstream classrooms under the new law were doing, Glodis decided it was time to move forward with his plan. A recent statewide survey of test results by the San Jose Mercury News showed them scoring much higher, for instance, than their peers who remained in native-language, non-English classrooms.
The Mercury News analysis found that second grade English learners placed in mainstream classrooms under the new law averaged at the 35th national percentile in reading, while their peers in bilingual classrooms averaged at 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. Third graders demonstrated similar results, but the benefits of English immersion were clearly greatest for younger students.
Since California voters approved Proposition 227, the issue has become one of the fastest-growing public-policy movements in the nation. Arizona passed major reform legislation in May 1999 with wide bipartisan consensus, underscoring the need for the informed consent of parents. Activists there have drafted a referendum largely based on the California law and are expected to obtain the required signatures to place a statewide initiative on the November 2000 ballot. Connecticut also passed landmark legislation in 1999 which placed a 30-month limit on transitional bilingual education programs and required schools to annually assess the progress of English learners towards new state English mastery standards.
Illinois, Colorado and New York have all implemented or considered significant steps toward bilingual education reform since the passage of the California law. And the United States House of Representatives in September approved Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon’s “Parents Know Best” proposal, requiring informed parental consent for placement in bilingual or other programs. It also reversed a mandate that the U.S. Department of Education give funding preference to programs using non-English native language instruction. The U.S. Senate is next expected to take up the matter, where proposals by Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona are expected to put forward similar directions for reform.
So the Glodis plan could not come at a better time. Massachusetts schools have 45,000 English learners, and bilingual education programs teach students not only in Spanish but in Vietnamese, Chinese, Haitian-Creole, Cape-Verdean-Creole, Greek, Portugese, Somali and Cambodian-Laotian. While about 80 percent of students graduate to mainstream programs within three years, the rest remain only to fall further and further behind their peers.
There is strong scientific evidence that the early years of a child’s education are the most critical for language acquisition. Not only can children best acquire a second language at a younger age, but it is vital to give them that opportunity before they are allowed to fall further behind. Bilingual education programs rely on developing written and verbal skills first in children’s non- English native language, and many do not even begin teaching written English until the fifth grade, when it is much harder for them to make up lost ground.
A decision made by the Massachusetts Board of Education last year reversed a policy whereby English learners were regularly excluded from the Iowa reading test. Further, all public school students, including English learners, will be required to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System in the tenth grade, beginning in 2003. Says Glodis, “Hispanics are our largest segment of English learners. Yet they have the lowest test scores, the highest dropout rates, and the lowest college acceptances of any language minorities. This bill is about helping Hispanic young people by giving them the opportunities they need to succeed.”
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