Learning English in school

THE ISSUE: Denver district takes a look at its bilingual program OUR VIEW: Finally, clear eyed recognition of the problems

A year ago we asked Denver Public Schools how quickly students move out of bilingual classes into a regular school setting. The answer: No one really knew. Data simply weren’t available to judge whether the bilingual program had become a dead-end trap for some kids.

Now we know. For the first time in recent memory, school board members are publicly admitting that bilingual education in Denver has become a hindrance to some students’ future success. The problem is the same one that has afflicted a number of other bilingual programs around the country: Too many kids are drafted into bilingual classes to begin with, and too many stay in them for too long.

As we said last year, the unambiguous goal of bilingual education should be to help everybody learn English as quickly and as fluently as possible. It should not be a native-language maintenance program. Nor should it be a dumping ground for kids who score poorly on standardized tests and who also happen to speak a language in addition to English.

In Denver, however, students have been shunted into bilingual classes if their first language is Spanish, whether or not they can already speak English, too. They have also ended up in the bilingual program merely because they scored low on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills – never mind that plenty of kids who speak nothing but English do poorly on that test, too.

”We’re talking about going back to the original intent of bilingual education – as a transitional program,” board member Rita Montero said the other day. In some schools, another board member says, there isn’t even the option of English instruction in every grade level, such is the sweep of the bilingual program.

That is simply absurd. Fortunately, the school board seems determined, for the first time in many years, to act. It’s never easy to change an entrenched bureaucratic culture, particularly when jobs may be at stake, but the board owes it to the kids whose education is retarded by present policies. They will only succeed in this country if they learn good English – meaning if they manage to move on fairly rapidly into classes that are taught in English, too.

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