Quincy is taking the right attitude toward bilingual education. The city has done the best it could to accommodate children of immigrants who speak foreign languages and now it finds itself stumped.
A change is in order, say Quincy school officials, because they cannot find enough qualified teachers. Interestingly, Quincy’s decision to seek a waiver from state regulations to switch to English immersion programs for non-English speakers comes at a time when bilingual education is being re-evaluated across the country.
The state Education Department is receptive to the idea of doing things differently. And the new chairman of the state board of education, John Silber, is eager to do away with bilingual education.
One problem with our education system is that it tends to be “one size fits all.” Standardization is valid, to a point. But what works for one town may not be suitable in another. The need for variation has given rise to charter schools and other forms of experimentation.
Language education is ripe for different approaches. Some children will adapt to a new language more quickly than others. Some youngsters may have no desire to learn in their native tongue and would rather be enrolled in English-speaking classes from the start. The problem, educators and parents are beginning to recognize, is that bilingual rules have become a straitjacket.
Until fairly recently, Quincy was an all American school system, with few immigrants. Now the schools have an increasingly diverse population, with 31 different languages represented, including five Chinese dialects.
Finding instructors to teach several subjects in Cantonese, which is the Chinese dialect spoken by the largest minority population, has not been a problem, and classes taught in Vietnamese are offered at the middle and high school levels. But for other foreign-language speakers, the city offers only English-language classes rather than separate bilingual classes.
Many educators, such as Silber, and some politicians are opposed to bilingual education in the belief that it delays foreign-language speakers from adapting to the language of this country. A favorite argument is that our grandparents and great-grandparents came to this country and had to sink or swim, so they learned English without special assistance.
The motive behind bilingual education was valid; it would serve as a bridge to make the transition to English easier. But over the years it has become top-heavy with arbitrary rules and requirements. Many school systems and students consider bilingual education as much impediment as aid.
It’s time to explore alternatives.