IF NOTHING else, the decision of a California crusader against bilingual education to try to put the issue on the Massachusetts ballot in 2002 should get this important subject more attention here. While Massachusetts was a national leader in 1971 when it passed a law requiring districts with more than 20 students of any foreign language to provide transitional instruction in that language, the state has not been diligent about follow-up.

The language wars

As a result, both critics of bilingual education, like Californian Ron Unz, and its advocates have little hard data to point to in judging the law. Unz touts California results showing dramatic test-score gains following his 1998 ballot initiative to replace the old system with one year of immersion in English as a second language and then mainstreaming. But at the same time, class sizes were reduced and reading instruction switched from whole-word to phonics, clouding the reason for the gains.

Here, each side accuses the other of inflexibility, and each is probably right. Under current law, parents theoretically can keep their children out of the three-year transitional program with foreign-language instruction, but critics say many districts lack alternatives, such as an English as a second language immersion course, and don’t do a good job informing the immigrant parents what their options are.

By the same token, advocates of immersion like Unz and state Senator Guy Glodis of Worcester say their proposed law would permit parents of children over 10, an age when language learning is said to be more difficult, to ask for a waiver from immersion and placement instead in transitional classes. But if only a few do so, will a district really make that option available? All too often, the ideal espoused by both sides of finding the best program for the individual child falls victim to cost or bureaucratic convenience.

Both Unz’s ballot question and the MCAS tests will force the issue of bilingual education reform. The scores of students with limited English proficiency have been low. This has caught the notice of both the Senate and House chairmen of the joint education committee, who started working on bilingual reform legislation even before Unz said he would try to put his question on the ballot.

Details are still being worked on. But any bill should both give a push to immersion for children younger than 10 as well as more assessment of student progress and tougher standards for bilingual teachers. Because of the shortage of such teachers, certification is routinely waived. Many lack English skills or solid backgrounds in the academic courses they teach. Ideally, a sound bill will emerge and eclipse the Unz petition. The complexity of improving bilingual education is much better addressed through the legislative process than through a sweeping ballot question.

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