IN THE 31 YEARS since Massachusetts passed a law requiring special provisions for the education of children who don’t speak English as their first language, neither the Legislature nor the state Department of Education has carefully monitored students’ progress and demanded needed changes. It is high time for such a review, not least because MCAS test results have shown that, with some exceptions, students from foreign-language families do worse than average on both the verbal and math parts of the tests.

Pressure for reform also comes from a ballot question proposed by software millionaire Ronald Unz, who wants to do away with the current array of programs and replace them with a one-year English immersion program followed by mainstreaming. His plan, which has been approved by voters in California and Arizona, has rightly been criticized by both legislators and Acting Governor Jane Swift as a one-size-fits-all approach.

Yesterday the two chairmen of the Legislature’s Education Committee offered an alternative proposal that has solid elements and should be a good base for improving the way the state educates what has been a growing number of its young people.

The bill would give school districts the freedom to pick their own two-year ”English language learner” programs. These could include transitional instruction offered in the foreign language, ”structured immersion” in English, or two-way bilingual programs in which children from English-speaking homes and foreign-language homes learn both languages together.

Some advocates of transitional bilingual education worry that some districts will offer only immersion, depriving especially older children of the option of learning subjects in their own language while they are mastering English.

Sadly, there are no state data from the MCAS tests or other performance measures showing which students from foreign language backgrounds do best – those who are mainstreamed, those in transitional bilingual education, or those in immersion programs. The committee’s bill corrects that by requiring the state to track MCAS results according to the form of instruction a student receives.

The bill also calls for annual tests of the English proficiency of students whose first language was not English. The bill would limit the time period over which newly hired teachers of ”English language learner” programs could get certification waivers, and the teachers would have to demonstrate both oral and written proficiency in English. Wisely, the measure also calls for increased funding for all English language learner programs.

The bill isn’t perfect, but it should begin a debate the state has long owed its children with foreign language backgrounds.



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