Even state Department of Education officials are unsure whether the bilingual education program works well enough to send students into English-only classrooms after three years.
Yet that is one of the guidelines of the program officially known as Transitional Bilingual Education – to enable non-English-speaking students to perform schoolwork in classes taught only in English within three years.
Students in the program also give it mixed reviews.
“It’s too difficult,” said Maria Carmen, 14, an eighth-grader at Mary E. Wells Junior High School in Southbridge. “They explain, but I don’t understand. ”
She has been unable to transfer out of the program within the three-year target date set by the state. She can speak English, but is unable to grasp the concepts needed to do the schoolwork unless it is explained in Spanish.
But Johnny Vargas, 14, also an eight-grader at Mary Wells, only needed a year in the TBE program before being placed into English-only classes.
“I think I was ready for it,” he said of his experience. He credited his teacher with his success.
“I think it’s impossible to tell” if bilingual education works, said Charles L. Glenn, a professor of educational policy at Boston University and former state education official. He is critical that there is no accountability for whether students make the transition to English-only classes.
“Unfortunately, there’s not been accountability for measurable results,” he said.
Glenn said he has fought for a system of measuring how well bilingual education works over the years and noted that last year the Governor’s Commission on Education report made strong recommendations for accountability.
How bilingual education is working will be scrutinized by state officials later this year or early next year at a regularly scheduled review.
Linda V. Beardsley, the state administrator and bilingual director, said this review will look closely at how the program meets student needs. Examination of student results is critical, she said. The review will ensure student achievement standards are spelled out.
Alan P.G. Safran, executive director of the office of the commissioner of education, said, “It’s working for some kids but not all. Too many are in the TBE program for longer than the transition envisioned by law. ”
A statewide standard is expected to be instituted as a result of the review, according to Safran. He said the three-year limit is “not a bad indicator” of how well the program works. A high percentage of students in their fourth or fifth year of TBE classes would indicate a problem. However, statewide figures are not available because of missing data, he said.
There is also no statewide test to measure TBE’s effectiveness. Of accountability for the success of TBE, Safran said, “I’d say it’s lacking. But it’s lacking systemwide, not just for bilingual students. ”
The mandate for bilingual education classes became state law in 1971 and was implemented in 1972. The law states that if a school system has 20 or more students unable to do classroom work in English, it must provide a TBE program. The school systems themselves determine which students are capable of learning in English.
There are seven school systems in Central Massachusetts that offer TBE programs. As well as learning course work in their native language and English, these students are also taught about their culture and history and the history of the United States.
Most communities offer English-as-a-second-language courses, where the concentration is on teaching students the English language.
Safran and Beardsley agree on three areas of prime importance within the regulations for bilingual education that need be adhered to in order to meet the goal. They are: those rules governing the evaluation of students who might need the program; the rules governing a coordinator for the program; and the guidelines to determine a student’s proficiency in English to allow the student to take English-only classes.
On the local level, Southbridge School Superintendent JoAnn D. Austin has doubts about the program’s effectiveness, while Clinton TBE Director Fatima C. Ferreira thinks the program meets its goal.
Southbridge offers Spanish TBE classes. Of TBE, Austin said, “I’m not sure that the bilingual (program) … has proven to be what people expected it to be. ”
She said she has read studies that claim that total immersion in a language is the best method of learning it. That is not possible with the bilingual program, she said, because the teacher is always going to have to talk in the native language sometimes to some of the students in a class. “There’s never going to be that total English experience for them. ”
Clinton also has a Spanish TBE program. “I think it’s effective, but I think some of the systems are not following it. ” Ferreira said.
“Literacy and fluency in a language doesn’t happen in a year or two or even three. ” She said it takes six to seven years.
Regulations stipulate bilingual assistance and other support services be available to a student even after leaving the TBE program.
While supportive of the program, Ferreira agreed the state should examine it and how effective it is.
TWO-WAY PROGRAM Colleen C. Dunn, Worcester bilingual director, said the school system offers a two-way program at Jacob Hiatt Magnet School in which Spanish-speaking pupils learn English and English-speaking pupils learn Spanish. The system also has TBE programs for Polish and Vietnamese students.
She said one reason some people oppose bilingual education is a misunderstanding about the program. It is “totally untrue,” she said, that students stay in the program forever. She said 98 percent are out in three years “and are extremely successful in the monolingual program. ” Margaret S. Kyriakakis, Fitchburg public schools bilingual director, said that system offers TBE programs for Spanish-speaking and Hmong students. There are students from 18 language groups enrolled within the system, she said. ESL classes are offered for those who speak other languages, including Vietnamese and French.
Kyriakakis has no doubt TBE works. “If the program is appropriately designed and implemented, as it should be under state laws, there’s no reason why the program should not be working,” she said. Her results show those in a TBE program “far exceeded mainstream classroom kids (in terms of literacy development) because they’re developing literacy in two languages. ”
In Milford, TBE programs are offered in Spanish and Portuguese. Bilingual Director Leonard C. Oliveri supports the TBE concept. To those who say it wasn’t offered to their grandparents and they made it through school, he counters that was not always the case.
“Look at all the people who didn’t have an opportunity to become educated because they didn’t have” these programs, he said. In earlier days, a 16-year-old student who didn’t know English might be put in a first-grade class, become humiliated and leave school, he said.
“There’s a lot of negative feeling toward bilingual education, anyway,” he added in a comment echoed by his peers in other communities. “It’s not a totally acceptable program anywhere.
“Part of it is really getting the system and the community and so forth to truly accept the philosophy of bilingual education. Many people truly don’t buy it,” Oliveri said. He said some educators feel ESL should be the method, where the overwhelming emphasis is on learning English, while others favor TBE programs.
While debate continues on whether the program works, there is no debate that coping with its regulations poses headaches for educators.
One regulation that causes a problem is a limit on class sizes.
The law limits classes to 18 students per teacher or 25 students with a teacher and a native language-speaking aide in a single-grade classroom. The limit in a single classroom with pupils in different grades is 15 students without an aide or 20 with an aide.
Regulations also stipulate multigrade classes other than kindergarten cannot have students with more than a four-year age difference. Kindergarten classes are limited to a one-year age difference. Besides special education, bilingual education is the only area in which the law spells out class sizes.
“Numbers become an issue for us where the ratio of teachers to students is very specific,” Austin said. Because TBE students are “a more transitory population,” maintaining the required ratio from month to month is difficult.
Leominster TBE Coordinator Maria E. Regan said in the case of multigrade classes it is hard to keep the age span within the regulations.
Also, Southbridge is still trying to hire a bilingual coordinator, something it has been trying to do for a couple of years. For a couple of months this year, the system advertised for the combined position of director and psychologist. The combined position would have saved money because bilingual students are seen on a consulting basis by a private psychologist when needed. However, after no qualified applications were received, the system is now advertising for a full-time TBE director.
And while educators cope with regulations and state and national politicians make sporadic attempts to make English the official language, TBE may be here to stay.
Neither Safran nor Beardsley feels a mandate to make English the official language would mean major changes in the program. Safran said that, with or without such a law, the schools, state, community, parents and others know students must learn English “so they can make it in any field they choose to work in. ”
He said there already is parental, societal and economic pressure for learning English.