Reform bilingual ed

Non-English-speakers penalized by status quo

Succumbing to vociferous lobbying from interest groups, the Legislature’s Education Committee appears ready to turn thumbs down to long-overdue plans to reform Massachusetts’ dysfunctional “transitional bilingual education” program.

If would be a shame if they did. The futures of thousands of Massachusetts children are at stake.

While well-intended in theory, the current system falls far short in practice. In a recent nationwide report card on bilingual education issued by the Center for Educational Opportunity, a Washington-based think tank, Massachusetts scored D-minus, ranking dead last with New York.

Indeed, there’s more grim truth than humor in the remark that, all too often, transitional bilingual education in Massachusetts is neither transitional, bilingual nor educational.

Under current law, non-English-speaking pupils are instructed in separate classrooms until judged sufficiently proficient to enter mainstream classes. In bilingual classrooms they are taught English while being instructed in other subjects in their native languages.

This approach isolates minority children from mainstream education, often for years, with onerous results. The longer they remain in bilingual classes, the farther behind academically they tend to fall and the more likely they are to simply give up on school.

Moreover, the quality of bilingual instruction and professional preparation of bilingual teachers varies widely from classroom to classroom.

The proposed reforms, backed by the Board of Education and Education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci, would limit students to three years in bilingual classes, mandate that only English be used in instruction after the first year, require teachers to be competent in both English and the language they are teaching, test students upon beginning and leaving a bilingual program and permit greater educational flexibility for school districts.

These are common-sense provisions that would help bring non-English-speaking students successfully into the educational mainstream with all due speed.

Opponents of reform, hard-pressed to defend the system on its merits, now charge that the reform effort is a racist attack on minority students’ civil rights.

The self-serving claim is absurd. Even at best, the current system is a futile attempt to provide “separate but equal” education for minority pupils. Too often, it is simply separate and inferior.

The Education Committee plans to issue its report on the Weld administration proposals in the next few weeks.

Members should weigh the compelling interests of non-English-speaking children against the interests of bilingual advocates – and endorse the reform initiative.

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