Since last June, when California voters put an end to that state’s
discredited bilingual education programs, policy-makers, educators and
parents around the nation have sought ways to make similar changes to help
English learners in their own schools.
Massachusetts is now taking important strides to improve life for its
“limited English-proficient” students, and the timing could not be better.
Under the old California system, would-be English learners were
segregated in isolated classrooms, often for five to seven years or
even longer, where they were taught in their native language at least
75 percent of the time.??Many of these “bilingual” classrooms did not
even begin teaching students to read and write English until the fourth
It is little wonder that only 7 percent of California’s 1.3 million
limited English-proficient students were learning English well enough
to graduate back into mainstream classes each year.
There are striking similarities, though, between the programs that
were replaced in California and the ones currently employed in
Massachusetts has 44,000 students in bilingual education programs,
where the focus is largely on learning in their native language, not in
English.??Of these, 80 percent are expected to graduate to mainstream
classrooms within three years, while the others are left to fall
further behind their peers.
Just as disturbing is the fact that up until last month, when
students across Massachusetts sat down to take the Iowa reading test,
three out of five third-graders in bilingual programs were left out of
the exam because their English skills were considered too poor.
What motive could justify such an omission???And what message does
this send to the parents of those children about the confidence school
officials have in the programs being entrusted to teach their children
The recent decision by the state Board of Education to change that
policy reflects a vital improvement in attitude toward those students
and their families.??It comes at a time when others around the nation
are making similar changes.
In Arizona there is currently a bill before the state Legislature
to limit and reform bilingual programs, and a movement under way to
bring a referendum to the ballot next year that would effectively end
Recently, debates in cities as diverse as Denver, Chicago and
Hartford have focused on how to teach English as early as possible in a
child’s education, when they can learn a language most effectively and
before they are allowed to fall too far behind their peers.
The growing involvement of Hispanic leaders has been a major factor
in the push for reforming bilingual education, with people such as
Herman Badillo of New York City, the first Hispanic member of the
United States Congress, taking prominent roles.
At the federal level, the House of Representatives last fall
approved a bill to dramatically reform federal bilingual education
programs.??The “English Language Fluency Act” was passed too late in the
legislative session to be considered in the Senate but is likely to be
reintroduced this year.??And with the scheduled reauthorization of the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, Congress has a major
opportunity to reshape vast and poorly performing federal bilingual
Some Massachusetts policy-makers have vacillated on the subject of
bilingual education reform, calling for more extensive research on the
subject.??But there is much recent scientific evidence which reinforces
the common sense and time-tested argument that languages can generally
be learned more effectively at a younger age.
And many top researchers, including the National Research Council
of the National Academy of Sciences, have found no long-term advantages
to initial literacy instruction in the primary language, which is the
basis for most bilingual programs.
Perhaps the most powerful indication of this is going on right now
across California, where teachers and educators, many of whom opposed
the statewide initiative, are widely reporting that their children are
“I expected that their self-esteem would be affected, and that they
would feel inhibited, give up easily,” observed Yomy Duran, a second
grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.??”Instead,
they are excited, motivated. “
Such accounts have been increasingly common in recent press
coverage of the transition process, and seem to be replacing earlier
skepticism and concerns over implementation delays.
The recent Massachusetts Board of Education decision sends an
important and timely message that Massachusetts cares about its English
learners, but much remains to be done.
As state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll commented earlier
this winter, “We can no longer stand by and watch children essentially
fail because we have not been effective in making them proficient. “