Bilingual Choices

Needed: a clear break with the status quo

With several reform proposals on the table and a ballot question in the offing, this could be the year in which longstanding misgivings about Massachusetts’ “transitional bilingual education” system will be addressed at last.

Unfortunately, recent proposals on Beacon Hill fall short of the thorough overhaul of the system most educators, including many bilingual teachers, agree is long overdue.

The latest legislative proposal would require bilingual teachers to be certified and pupils to be tested regularly for English proficiency, two worthy provisions. Although it would allow alternative methods — something districts already can adopt under waiver — the current system would remain largely intact. Similar concerns apply to Gov. Jane M. Swift’s “overhaul” plan.

Increasingly, school districts are concluding that allegiance to the status quo is misplaced — as attested to by the innovative “sheltered English” approach being developed in Worcester and other district-based strategies for moving pupils quickly into regular classes.

Prompt mainstreaming pays huge dividends in achievement levels. After California approved an English immersion system in 1998 — similar to the one to appear on the Massachusetts ballot — achievement test scores soared.

Generations of immigrants have demonstrated that the faster non- English speakers participate in regular classes, the better their chances of success. In reforming bilingual education, that must be the central theme.

We are unenthusiastic about policy-making by referendum. However, if Beacon Hill offers only halfway measures, there is apt to be a groundswell of support for effective reform in November.

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