Language barriers

Think tank zeros in on state's bilingual education

A study by a respected public policy think tank lends additional
weight to calls for reform of bilingual education in Massachusetts.

The shortcomings of the state’s “transitional” program for
non-English-speaking students have been well documented.

The theory of teaching students in their native languages until
they are proficient in English sounds promising. In practice, the
approach tends to isolate students from mainstream school populations –
routinely for three or more years – in classes where the quality of
education often is sub-par.

Researchers for the conservative Boston-based Pioneer Institute
concluded from observations of actual classroom practices that the
rigid requirements of the bilingual education law are widely ignored.

For example, only about half of the state’s 40,000 bilingual
schoolchildren – primarily the Spanish-speaking students – actually are
taught in their own language as state law requires.

The broad noncompliance reflects deep-set problems. Yet there has
been scant effort to determine whether the 25-year-old transitional
bilingual education program actually works. In its 1994 report, the
Massachusetts Bilingual Education Commission concluded, “we do not
know, on the basis of measured outcomes, whether TBE (Transitional
Bilingual Education) programs in Massachusetts produce good results or
poor results. ”

That’s unconscionable. Transitional bilingual education is more
expensive than regular classroom instruction or other approaches in
which most of the instruction is in English.

The Pioneer Institute identifies a variety of sensible regulatory
and legislative reforms to improve the situation, beginning with making
the native-language instruction – already widely ignored – a local
option. It would drop the rule that schools with as few as 18
non-English-speaking students, K-12, must provide self-contained
bilingual classrooms.

The institute also recommends eliminating arbitrary class-size
ceilings, researching the effectiveness of bilingual education and a
requirement that bilingual teachers be fluent in written and spoken

The study concludes that the most effective approach to teaching
non-English-speaking students is “structured immersion. ” After an
initial period of instruction in English, usually no more than one
year, students are moved into regular classrooms.

We agree.

It’s sad and ironic that programs intended to speed the
integration of minorities into the American mainstream instead have led
to educational, cultural and, ultimately, economic segregation.

Changes are warranted – sooner rather than later.

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