No time to waste

Bilingual system must be changed next year

The momentum to make 1999 the year for long overdue reform of the state’s discredited transitional bilingual education system ratcheted up another notch at the recent meeting of the Board of Education.

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll proposed that school districts be able to apply for waivers from the state’s bilingual education law – enacted 28 years ago.

The law requires schools to offer bilingual classes when a minimum of 20 students in a district speak the same native, non-English, language.

Driscoll proposes flexible alternatives, such as English as a second language courses.

Today, the Bay State’s 44,000 bilingual students are taught all subjects in their native languages for three or more years. The prolonged isolation from the educational mainstream has been harmful.

That sad reality was underscored again recently in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores. In nearly all cases, the scores of bilingual students were dismal; some schools had a 100 percent failure rate.

Education Board Chairman John R. Silber called bilingual education a “grotesque failure. ” It certainly is.

Silber and other members of the board requested the Legislature limit students to one year in bilingual classes – the same standard adopted earlier this year in California where a public referendum forced reform.

Reform should be a must in Massachusetts as well. Scrapping the current system is the right thing to do for children being dragged down by its inadequacies.

There is another driving reason for change.

Beginning with the class of 2003, the Education Reform Act mandates that all public school students – including those in bilingual classes – must pass the 10th grade MCAS tests in order to graduate from high school. There will be no exceptions.

Each year that passes without change in the status quo condemns more young people to the second-class citizenship that follows the failure to learn the language of the land and, eventually, to acquire a high school diploma.

That must not be allowed to happen.

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