WHEN I VISITED Armory Street School in Springfield recently, the school where I had been a bilingual teacher, I observed a classroom of fifth- and sixth-grade bilingual students. I asked the teacher if these students had only just started learning English and her reply stunned me: ”These students have been in Springfield schools since kindergarten or first grade, but we are only allowed to give them 45 minutes a day of English lessons, so they finish elementary school without enough English to read or write or do regular classroom work in this language.”
This is only one example of the failure of transitional bilingual education, the experiment that started in Massachusetts in 1971. The law, Chapter 71-A, imposes a harmful, one-size-fits-all requirement on all school districts: If there are 20 students of limited English from the same language background, the district must teach these kids in their native language for most of the school day for several years.
For the past 16 years, efforts to change and improve the bilingual education law have never gotten off the ground. All that we advocates of change want is for districts to have a choice of programs and not be tied to the bilingual teaching that is demonstrating poor results here and across the country.
The English for the Children initiative, which is due to be on the Massachusetts ballot in November, would replace Chapter 71-A with a law requiring all children of limited English (not just where there are 20 in a district) to be given at the outset at least one year of intensive English language lessons – and additional years if needed. The new program would rely on trained teachers to teach the English language, reading and writing in English, and the vocabulary needed to learn school subjects in English. It may be a new idea for some Massachusetts educators, but programs of this type have been operating successfully in many districts across the country.
English immersion programs get the priorities straight for immigrant/ migrant/refugee children of limited English who make up the fastest growing group of students in US schools, with 49,000 in Massachusetts now. It allows children to learn English language and literacy, enough to be able to do regular classroom work in English, for maximum opportunities in school and society, and for genuine inclusion. Second, if requested by parents, bilingual program alternatives are allowed. The new law would have no effect on foreign language programs.
A typical emotional argument in favor of bilingual education is this one: If you don’t teach the kids in their native language in school they’ll lose it, and they won’t be able to communicate with their parents. That is false.
The strongest factor in native language maintenance is the family, not the schools. As long as the native language is spoken in the home, children do not lose their ability in that language. The family has the first responsibility to maintain its home language and culture, with the cooperation of community and religious groups. It is not and cannot be the responsibility of the public schools in a country where 128 different languages are represented in the homes of our school children.
Children of limited English are a varied group. Some are well-educated in their land of origin and will learn English quickly; some are native born and need only minimal help to get their reading and writing skills up to grade level. Children from war-torn countries, who have missed several years of schooling, need the most help for the longest time, not only with English but with remedial work in all school subjects.
In my 10 years as coordinator of the Bilingual/English as a Second Language programs for the Newton Public Schools (1980-90), we accommodated our teaching practices to fit the needs of all these students. We provided essentially an English immersion program, with little use of the child’s native language. The average amount of time in our program: two years. Parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members approved these methods, though they were out of compliance with state law.
The English for the Children initiative directly addresses the most important priority with the most proven and promising practices. In replacing the inadequate bilingual education law, Massachusetts voters will take an important role in a nationwide trend that began in California (1998) and Arizona (2000) to give limited-English students a greater opportunity to benefit from schooling and achieve their highest ambitions.
Rosalie Pedalino Porter, former Spanish bilingual teacher and program director in Newton, is an author, researcher, and consultant to US school districts.