No Single Solution For Bilingual Education

NEARLY 40 percent of Hispanics were among Californians who last week voted to end traditional bilingual education – a program once designed as a civil-rights boost for Spanish-speaking children. Should Washington follow California’s lead?

Some of our legislators may think so – particularly Harold Hochstatter, R-Moses Lake, the Senate Education Committee chairman who opposes bilingual
education. If a legislator sponsored a bill similar to the California measure, which mandates mainstreaming after one year of intense English instruction, he or she likely would find bipartisan supporters: conservatives who hate to see tax dollars squandered on Spanish instruction, and liberals who suspect that Hispanic immigrants get shortchanged because of their surnames and skin color.

A one-size-fits-all mandate from the state Legislature is not, however, the best way to help Washington’s foreign-speaking students. The Yakima School District, whose foreign-speaking population of students is almost entirely Hispanic, has different needs than the Seattle School District, where students speak nearly 80 different dialects. Suburban districts with small pockets of non-English-speaking students, like Marysville or Issaquah, need a whole different strategy.

While Legislative micromeddling is unnecessary, the vote in California provokes questions about needed changes for bilingual education in this state.

California’s Proposition 227 mandates that students enter mainstream classrooms after one year. It also allows parents to request additional time in bilingual instruction for students with special educational or personal needs.

The requirement for parental approval is both simple and ingenious. When parents have to choose to stay in a program rather than ask to get out, they are more likely to understand their children’s options. And a one-year deadline creates a philosophical shift from entrenched tracking to transitional assistance. That’s what bilingual education was supposed to be in the first place.

Seattle School District has bilingual orientation centers with ESL (English as a Second Language) training. Though school officials say most students move to regular classes within a year, some educators who work in the classrooms say students often stay in bilingual classes too long. Nearly one-fourth of the state’s foreign-speaking students stay in bilingual classes for four or more years. That in itself violates the federal Civil Rights Act, which requires equal educational opportunity regardless of race, color or national origin.

After 30 years of research, no single method of bilingual education has proven most effective. Research has shown, however, that foreign-speaking students do best in districts with dedicated teachers, sufficient resources and a clear set of goals – regardless of method or timeline.

State schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson said education reform will require schools to answer for their ability to help foreign-speaking students make a smooth transition to mainstream classrooms in under three years. To do this, schools will need to explore and share effective practices, monitor students’ progress, and question the flow of state and federal funding for bilingual education that discourages innovation and speedy transitions.

Los estudiantes y parientes esperan las respuestas, en cualquier idioma. Students and parents wait for answers, in any language.

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