Bill Seeks a Halt to Bilingual Education

Senator Proposes Immersion Course

Seeking to bring a hotly contested California program for non- English-speaking students to Massachusetts, state Senator Guy Glodis will file a bill today to eliminate bilingual education, a program he called “a mistake of epic proportions.”

Asserting that Massachusetts’ bilingual instruction programs have failed to help the students they were designed to serve, Glodis, a Democrat from Worcester, wants the state to adopt a one-year immersion course that mirrors California’s controversial programs for students who do not speak English.

“There are over 100 different language backgrounds in Massachusetts and out of all of these, Hispanic is the highest ethnic background to take bilingual education courses,” he said. “However, that group also has the lowest test scores, the highest dropout rates, and the lowest college admission rate. What does that say about bilingual education? Obviously, it’s failing.”

Advocates for bilingual education, the American Civil Liberties Union, and several legislators denounced Glodis’s bill, but others insisted bilingual education is in need of a serious overhaul.

State Board of Education chairman James A. Peyser fell short of endorsing the bill, but he did say he favors ending the way the state’s bilingual instruction law is structured.

State law allows students to remain in bilingual programs for three years or until they are able to perform successfully in English- only classes. Students can stay in the programs beyond three years if their parents and the local school committee agree they need to.

Glodis will unveil the bill at a State House news conference, where he will be joined by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman and the architect of Proposition 227, the California law that dismantled bilingual education in that state. Students there now take a one- year “sheltered immersion” English course, with some instruction in their native language, and are then transferred into regular education programs.

Adopted in 1971, Chapter 71-A is the nation’s oldest bilingual education law. Several attempts over the years to dismantle the system, including one by former governor William F. Weld in 1994, have failed.

Today, more than 40,000 students are enrolled in bilingual education programs, a figure that has remained relatively steady over the past decade.

“I endorse the idea that we need to eliminate the mandate for bilingual education and open up the process of teaching English to immigrant students with a broader range of teaching methods,” Peyser said. “In other countries other than the US, students who immigrate are put in intensive language acquisition environments for a limited time. . . . I don’t think that’s a bad approach at all.”

Peyser also said that in California, test scores have gone up and dropout rates have gone down among bilingual students in the immersion program.

Governor Paul Cellucci was out of town yesterday, but spokeswoman Shawn Fedderman said that while he has not read the Glodis bill, he favors changes in the bilingual education law overall and “wants to work with Latinos and other minority groups to get their input into this process.”

Critics of the Glodis bill, and of Proposition 227, however, said one year is not long enough for most non-English-speaking students in Massachusetts to master the language and perform well in English- only courses.

They warned that students will fail standardized tests, such as the MCAS exam, at even higher rates and would be more inclined to drop out of school.

“Comprehensive instruction will be just noise to students and no one will be getting an education,” said Tom Louie, director of the Massachusetts English Plus Coalition, a Boston-based language rights advocacy group. “It is ludicrous to think that a student without a formal education can master a language and learn on grade-level in just one year.”

Alan Jay Rom, a Boston attorney who has waged many court battles to force lax school districts to obey the bilingual education law, called Glodis “xenophobic” and contends bills that try to eliminate bilingual education result from right wing and anti-immigrant biases.

“Massachusetts is a leader in transitional bilingual education, and if they knock it out of here, they are sending a message around the country that xenophobia prevails,” Rom said.

Several Latino, Vietnamese, and Haitian advocacy groups said they would fight the Glodis bill and the elimination of bilingual education, but would endorse positive changes in the system.

“There needs to be reform and monitoring, because a lot of schools are not preparing kids the way they should,” said Carlos Martinez, executive director of La Alianza Hispana, a multiservice agency catering to the Latino community. “But elimination would be so backwards. Immersion would make kids feel incompetent and isolated. People would make fun of them and they would be at the bottom of the socialization period. People should learn more about what it takes to learn a new language and not everyone does it the same way.”

State Representative Antonio F. Cabral, a Democrat from New Bedford, condemned the Glodis bill after reading it yesterday, saying it did not show how the immersion option would yield accountability or bona fide results.

“The present law is one that meets the goals and objectives of what we’d like students to reach,” Cabral said. “What’s lacking are the tools from the Department of Education to make sure school systems are accountable and are producing the results the law is looking for.”

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