A day after Californians voted to virtually abolish bilingual education in their state, New Jersey officials moved in the other direction.
Without debate, the state Board of Education gave a resounding vote of confidence to New Jersey’s bilingual schooling, passing updated regulations that extend native language instruction to pre-kindergarten students.
The bilingual education programs in the two states are significantly different, and state Education Commissioner Leo Klagholz said New Jersey’s policies are”well-accepted”here.
Klagholz said New Jersey has regulations that prod students whose native language is Spanish, Korean, Japanese, or some other tongue to move into English-speaking classes as rapidly as possible. In California, critics claimed, some students linger in bilingual classes and never learn adequate English.
“New Jersey has a well-designed program with the purpose of making the transition to English language instruction,”Klagholz said.”It’s a different situation altogether to that in California.”
Several North Jersey teachers said that’s a good thing for the nearly 50,000 students in New Jersey’s bilingual programs. They said California’s move to quickly place non-English speakers in regular classrooms is wrong-headed and flies in the face of research on how these children learn best.
“Everyone learns language at a different rate and they come from varied backgrounds,”said Frances Martini, coordinator of bilingual and English as a Second Language programs in Palisades Park.”All of the research states that if you have a strong base in your native language,
you can make the transition to English much more easily.”
On Tuesday, more than 60 percent of California’s voters voted
“yes”on Proposition 227, which requires all public school students to be taught in English. Those who speak little English will be given a year of intensive instruction.
Ron Unz, the software millionaire who spearheaded the measure,
called it”ironclad constitutional.”He and other bilingual education opponents say the 1.4 million students in California’s program are ultimately handicapped by subpar English skills when they apply to college or pursue jobs.
On Wednesday, many California teachers said they would resist the measure, even under the threat of legal action. A class action suit was also filed, claiming the measure violates the students civil rights.
But while some observers have described the California vote as a barometer of a national movement, that sentiment wasn’t evident Wednesday in the Trenton meeting room where New Jersey’s education policy-makers meet every month.
The timing of the board’s unanimous vote on bilingual programs was coincidental, as the panel had been set to revise the code for months.
The revisions include providing bilingual classes for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students and allowing for additional time in English as a Second Language classes. The ESL classes are taught at a slower pace by teachers who speak English and use English materials.
“It’s important to let people know that what is happening in New Jersey in bilingual education is different than what is happening in California,”said board member Anne Dillman.
The contrasting moods are due in large part to the contrasting programs in the two states. For instance, California laws do not require a student to ever leave the bilingual program, and critics have contended that a student can stay in the classes for all 12 years of schooling.
New Jersey’s 1974 law, which requires bilingual classes in districts with 20 or more students sharing a language other than English, says that a student should remain in the classes no more than three years. The law does not require students to be forced out at that time, but officials said about three-quarters of them move into regular classrooms before the fourth year.
“If you look at the exit rates, you can see they make the transition to the mainstream and are learning in that setting,” said Iliana Okum, director of the state’s bilingual education office.
In 1996, New Jersey lawmakers passed a measure that permits districts to provide alternative programs for foreign-language speakers, such as classes that use English materials and English-speaking teachers.
Another New Jersey amendment allows parents to withdraw their children from bilingual programs. One catalyst for the California referendum was support from Hispanic parents who think their children are being held back in the bilingual classes.
“New Jersey has parental consent, and just 2 percent of the parents opt out,”said Okum, the state bilingual director. “That’s 98 percent saying ‘yes. I just don’t see the mood being similar to that in California.”
In Hackensack, about 450 children, roughly 10 percent of the enrollment , are in classes geared for students who speak Spanish or another foreign language. Most spend two or three years in such classes,
Program coordinator Richard Vega said he’s not worried that students in bilingual programs could fail to learn proper English because they spend most of their class time working in English. Usually,
the teacher switches to Spanish only if the students have trouble understanding a concept.
“If they were thrown into regular classrooms, the teacher wouldn’t have the time or a second language to assist them,” he said.”Also, if parents can’t communicate with an English-speaking teacher, you won’t get the same degree of parental involvement.”
Almost one in five Palisades Park students take advantage of that district’s bilingual and English as a Second Language programs.
Korean and Spanish students spend most of their time in mainstream courses, but get pulled out one period a day to study science, language arts, and other subjects in their native languages. These children, as well as those from other countries, also get a daily dose of classes taught in English for students who aren’t proficient in the language.
Martini said some of the blame for the public criticism lies with teachers themselves. In some other districts, she said, there is a lack of good bilingual teachers.
“I’ve observed teachers of ESL who can’t speak well enough to teach English,”she said.”They have no business in that classroom.”