After Bilingual Education

THE SUCCESS OF California’s Proposition 227, which is generally described as abolishing bilingual education, in fact does something more interesting:
It radically alters the basic educational assumptions about how best to move non-English-speaking students toward success in school. Not the goal
— bilingual education itself was intended to get students to par in English while letting them keep up in their subject classes — just the consensus on what best achieves that end. In a resounding 60 percent victory, proponents of the change signaled their agreement that the now institutionalized means of reaching that goal should be scrapped and something new tried instead.

That the "something new" has a somewhat old-fashioned sound to it — a year of intensive English immersion for all children — does not necessarily mean that the new approach must duplicate the weaknesses of the past. Those weaknesses included the notorious sink-or-swim approach by which students simply struggled, the strong catching on, the rest falling farther and farther behind.

The question to be tested by the new programs, assuming they survive court challenge and threats of teacher resistance, is more narrowly pedagogical:
Is a year of intensive English instruction enough, if not for mastery then at least for a level of comfort that will leave students ready for functioning in a regular English classroom? As a starting assumption, is fast better than slow, challenge better than coddle — especially for children, whose language-learning abilities are at their peak?

Many who have struggled to learn foreign languages will see a basic common sense in this assumption, much as voters Hispanic and non-Hispanic seem to have done, while still worrying whether the scheme would afford enough safety and flexibility to children who can’t rise to the challenge. California has a strong obligation, not to mention self-interest, in educating those children too. But it’s by no means obvious that the California result signals a widespread desire to abandon them. Proponents insisted that, on the contrary,
they wish only to save such children from educational limbo. And that is a worthy goal.

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