Language barriers

Think tank zeros in on state's bilingual education

A study by a respected public policy think tank lends additional weight to calls for reform of bilingual education in Massachusetts.

The shortcomings of the state’s “transitional” program for non-English-speaking students have been well documented.

The theory of teaching students in their native languages until they are proficient in English sounds promising. In practice, the approach tends to isolate students from mainstream school populations – routinely for three or more years – in classes where the quality of education often is sub-par.

Researchers for the conservative Boston-based Pioneer Institute concluded from observations of actual classroom practices that the rigid requirements of the bilingual education law are widely ignored.

For example, only about half of the state’s 40,000 bilingual schoolchildren – primarily the Spanish-speaking students – actually are taught in their own language as state law requires.

The broad noncompliance reflects deep-set problems. Yet there has been scant effort to determine whether the 25-year-old transitional bilingual education program actually works. In its 1994 report, the Massachusetts Bilingual Education Commission concluded, “we do not know, on the basis of measured outcomes, whether TBE (Transitional Bilingual Education) programs in Massachusetts produce good results or poor results. ”

That’s unconscionable. Transitional bilingual education is more expensive than regular classroom instruction or other approaches in which most of the instruction is in English.

The Pioneer Institute identifies a variety of sensible regulatory and legislative reforms to improve the situation, beginning with making the native-language instruction – already widely ignored – a local option. It would drop the rule that schools with as few as 18 non-English-speaking students, K-12, must provide self-contained bilingual classrooms.

The institute also recommends eliminating arbitrary class-size ceilings, researching the effectiveness of bilingual education and a requirement that bilingual teachers be fluent in written and spoken English.

The study concludes that the most effective approach to teaching non-English-speaking students is “structured immersion. ” After an initial period of instruction in English, usually no more than one year, students are moved into regular classrooms.

We agree.

It’s sad and ironic that programs intended to speed the integration of minorities into the American mainstream instead have led to educational, cultural and, ultimately, economic segregation.

Changes are warranted – sooner rather than later.



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