A Cramped Approach to Bilingualism

Frustration over the failure of bilingual education for many children has created widespread public support for a narrow-minded ballot measure in California that would dismantle all bilingual programs, regardless of effectiveness. Like most states, California currently allows different types of programs to help limited-English speakers. Some schools adopt the English as a Second Language approach, using English in most classes for newcomers.
Others offer classes in basic subjects for students in their native language while they learn English separately.

Proposition 227 on the June ballot would eliminate these choices. Instead it would permit only one approach, a yearlong English immersion program where all subjects are taught in English, unless a parent makes a case for special treatment. It would essentially require all students to learn English in one year, even though many children need several years of language support.

This sink-or-swim approach fails to account for different instructional strategies tailored to grade levels. A high school student, for example,
might need to be taught in a language other than English to stay at grade level in math and science while he or she is also learning English. That student’s needs are quite different from those of a first grader who may be able to make a quicker transition from a native language to English.
Proposition 227 makes no such distinctions. It would take away local control and create an educational straitjacket.

Nonetheless, this measure has attracted broad support even in the Hispanic community, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of students in bilingual classes. That support is not surprising. Bilingual programs are often ghettos of poor instruction. The referendum idea took hold when a group of Latino parents boycotted a Los Angeles elementary school to demand that their children be excused from ineffective bilingual classes.

Part of the problem is that the growth in the population of immigrant students in California over the past decade has created a shortage of qualified teachers. The Clinton Administration, which opposes the California measure,
is seeking $50 million to train bilingual teachers. The status quo in many California schools is certainly depressing. But replacing bad programs with a plan to destroy good programs makes no sense. Proposition 227 will help voters vent their frustrations but will not help California’s 1.3 million bilingual students enter the mainstream any quicker.

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