Calif. law fuels Mass. debate on fate of bilingual education

The debate over bilingual education in Massachusetts has yet to reach the intense, often rancorous levels the subject has spurred in California.

But while it may never generate such hostility, the pluses and minuses of bilingual education are on the minds of many in the Bay State.

The issue won’t soon go away.Massachusetts, 13th in population, is home to the seventh-largest immigrant and fifth-largest refugee populations in the country, according to immigration officials.

In California, voters overwhelmingly rejected their state’s 30-year-old system of teaching children whose native tongue is not English.The measure was approved in June, 61 percent to 39 percent, although opposed 2-1 among Hispanic voters.

Under California’s new law – which some opponents say they will sidestep, fight, or ignore – non-English-speaking students will generally receive one year of “sheltered immersion” transition classes.

Then, with few exceptions, they’ll be taught entirely in English.

Previously, many speakers of Spanish, Mandarin or other languages were taught mostly in their native languages.

The vote affects only California residents, but it reverberates nationwide.

“We need to abolish bilingual education as soon as possible,” state Rep.Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, said of the Massachusetts system.

“California has taken the lead.Bilingual does not work.


“We need to be training our students to be able to compete in the global economy and the technological economy,” he added.”They must understand, comprehend and speak English if they are going to be productive members of the society.

“We as a state and we as a government have an obligation to help minorities and to help people help themselves.Bilingual does not do that.Too often students are taught in foreign languages and not given the opportunity to learn English. “

Glodis said immersion in English usually works best.”Many people, my grandparents included, learned through total immersion.Support networks should be there, but should be closely monitored.The emphasis should be on learning English,” he said.

However, Heriberto Salas, acting affirmative action officer and human resources manager for the Worcester public schools, says many students from Worcester are doing very well in their lives and careers after bilingual education.

Salas, who has taught bilingual classes in Worcester’s public schools for 22 years, told the Telegram & Gazette after the California vote that rapid immersion is not the answer for all students.Students learn English at different rates, according to motivation, support at home and other factors, he said, and younger ones often learn more quickly.


Somewhere in between is the view of Christine A. Miller of Auburn, a member of the state Department of Education’s council on bilingual education.

“It’s such a complicated issue,” she said.”It’s not black and white.You can’t just say you’re in favor or against bilingual education as it exists today.Bilingual education is made up of different kinds of programs and levels. “

Since she was appointed to the council a year ago, its members have grappled mostly with how to give the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test to students not fluent in English.Answers haven’t come easily.

“The goal of bilingual education is to get kids to speak English,” Miller said.”No one disputes that.My question is, what do you do with these kids while they’re learning English? “

Miller said rapid immersion is generally the best way to learn any language.But policy makers, she said, need to consider that students learn at different rates and in different ways.

Under the Transitional Bilingual Education Act passed 27 years ago in Massachusetts, students affected spend much of their school time in separate classes taught partly in their native language, for up to three years.

Proponents of such systems that gradually ease students into classes taught in English may consider themselves realists.They note that schools aren’t perfect, the future isn’t certain, and it’s important to give students academic instruction.Otherwise, academic skills might be lost or seriously delayed while students learn English.


Critics, however, maintain that such programs are too costly, too slow, spread already stretched school systems too thin, and do a disservice to the students they’re meant to help.

These critics call for a system like the California-style rapid immersion in English-only classes, insisting that such programs are neither harsh nor intended to denigrate native languages and cultures.

It’s meant to be a sink-or-swim situation, but with enough support that sinking is not an option.

Research doesn’t always seem to help: Piles of it support various views.

But many agree that some reform is in order.

Even those who like the current system acknowledge that some bilingual education teachers are not fully bilingual – fluent in English and the students’ language – or otherwise well qualified to teach.There’s also concern about social isolation of students taught in self-contained bilingual classrooms.Sometimes gym is the only class non-English speakers spend with other schoolmates.

Are changes likely in Massachusetts?

There has been a three-year lull in the conversation in this state, since then-Gov. William F. Weld’s proposed bilingual education changes died in committee.Now many educators, state officials, parents and others feel the controversial topic is about to resurface.

“I suspect we’ll have another conversation about it during the next session,” state Rep.Harold M. Lane Jr., D-Holden, said of the Legislature that will convene in January.


“My mind is open.I’d like to hear about the research that has been done” since Weld’s proposals, Lane said.He serves as House chairman of the joint committee that began a study of Weld’s reform package but took no action on it.

Among other changes, Weld’s ideas would have sped the transition to English-only classes, required bilingual students to be taught in English at least a third of the day, and given districts greater flexibility in how non-English speakers learn the language.

Lane, former principal of Wachusett Regional High School in Holden, said the new California law may put older students at a disadvantage.

For instance, older students facing a language barrier would have a difficult time holding their own in algebra class, he said.

“I do agree that the faster we can get kids converted to English the better, but we should also be honoring their home language …What has always concerned me with this discussion is that the older the child is, the harder it is to learn a foreign language,” Lane said.

Across the nation, Hispanic parents historically have been strong supporters of bilingual education.About 35 percent of Worcester public school students are Hispanic.

Worcester School Committee member Brian A. O’Connell said bilingual education has improved in the city since 1991, when there were more than 120 students who had been in the system for more than three years, the mandated cut-off time in Massachusetts.In one case, a child had been in bilingual education for nine years, he said.


Now, O’Connell said, far fewer children stay too long in bilingual education classrooms.

“Bilingual education’s primary role should be providing a rapid and aggressive means of education in the skills needed to speak and write English,” he said.”It’s important that bilingual education not be an end in itself. “

He said that in general, bilingual education has been very popular with Worcester’s Hispanic community, but less so with the Vietnamese community – perhaps in part because people from Vietnam are often more intent on making a sharp and definite break with their past.

Vietnamese parents, he noted, have complained that their children were not mastering English rapidly enough, and often ask that they be immersed in English-only classes more quickly.Yet the rigid Massachusetts law sometimes gets in the way.

Much has changed in education since 1971, when the state’s Transitional Bilingual Education Act became law, O’Connell said.

Today, many educators view bilingual education as only one of several appropriate ways to teach English to non-native speakers.”But bilingual education is the only one that’s codified,” he said.

While the law on transitional bilingual education hasn’t changed, the state Department of Education has been more practical and flexible, O’Connell said.Districts have implemented other ways of teaching non-native speakers English.

Several Worcester elementary schools offer two-way bilingual education, in which Spanish-speaking and English-speaking children share a classroom and begin to learn each other’s language.

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