When over half of the students in Texas are Hispanic, and a significant portion have limited proficiency in English, the stakes in the debate over bilingual education could not be higher.

This is one issue that we must get right.

Now that voters in California and Arizona have approved ballot measures requiring that all students be placed in English classes, the debate has shifted where it belongs: to school districts. School administrators are trying to balance the educational establishment’s support for bilingual programs with calls for reforms from angry and frustrated parents.

Two of the most often discussed changes involve giving parents a greater say in whether their children receive bilingual instruction and limiting the number of years that students stay on a bilingual track.

Those are the ways in which the New York City school board attempted last week to overhaul bilingual education there. Besides giving parents more control, the board also gave them more options, including the choice of enrolling their children in coveted dual-language programs in which classes are conducted in both English and a foreign language.

Officials at the Texas Education Agency say that, in Texas, requiring parental permission and keeping a tight rein on how long students stay in bilingual classes are standard operating procedure. They claim that parents must give permission for students to be placed in a bilingual program, and that schools try to move students out within an average of three years.

Technically, that may be true. But you have to look at how the program unfolds at the grass-roots level. Officials at Dallas-area school districts confirm that they offer bilingual education programs from kindergarten through sixth or eighth grade and some of them acknowledge the possibility that a student, if unable to test his or her way out of the bilingual track,
could receive bilingual instruction for as many as six or seven years.

That’s unconscionable. Students who are struggling to learn English and basic skills well into their teens often end up dropping out. We must identify those students earlier, speed them into the mainstream with English classes and give them a better chance to succeed.

The real problem in Texas, as elsewhere, is that the entire bilingual program is designed to be so decentralized as to leave individual districts ? and the schools within them ? on their honor to make up their own rules about who gets what sort of instruction and for how long. In some places, that approach leads to flexible and specialized teaching that works fine. In others, it leads to a subjective and haphazard application of educational theory and doesn’t work at all.

While state and federal officials are free to take their own stabs at reform, the final word belongs to local school districts. Those who have the control over implementing bilingual programs bear the responsibility for ensuring that these programs do not hurt the very students whom they are intended to help.



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