Bilingual reform

Speeding students' transition is key principle

The state Legislature, currently torn between two sharply contrasting bilingual education reform proposals, should step up efforts to draft and enact an effective reform package- and not wait for this complex issue to be decided by a ballot initiative.

The need for reform has been apparent for years. Bilingual education in Massachusetts clearly has not been the transitional program it was intended to be. In fact, it may be holding back the educational progress of the students it was designed to help.

Yet repeated efforts to reform the system have been frustrated, prompting state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, to propose a ballot question on whether the current bilingual education system should be eliminated.

However, Mr. Glodis says he will call off his ballot initiative if he can reach some agreement with state Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, who has proposed changes that, unfortunately, would leave some of the program’s shortcomings intact.

Under one compromise scenario, Mr. Glodis’ proposal to place non-English speakers in an intensive English-learning program for only as long as needed to succeed in regular classrooms- normally about one year- would be replaced by a three-year limit on the time students can spend in bilingual classrooms.

A major drawback of the current system is that it has become, in effect, a parallel educational track. Although students get some English language instruction, much of their time is spent studying other subjects in their native languages.

A three-year cap would be an improvement over the current, open-ended system. But that still is too long a time for students to be kept out of the mainstream.

By the time they have become proficient enough in English to enter regular classes, their education often lags years behind that of their English-speaking peers. The harm that does to bilingual students can be seen in their low college admission rates, their high dropout rates and their low scores on achievement tests.

Generations of immigrants have demonstrated that the faster non-English speakers join regular classes, the better their chances of success. As reform-minded lawmakers work out a bilingual education reform bill, moving students into the mainstream as quickly as possible should be its central principle.

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