Reforming language learning

Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan is acting decisively in kicking off a series of public meetings this fall on revamping the state’s language programs. Only such a pro-active push toward reform stands a chance of heading off a destructive blow-up over race, language and bilingual education in the next few years.

Doing nothing will only guarantee either hostile legislation next year or a wrathful citizens’ initiative to ban bilingual education entirely.

Keegan, in short, knows full well that the state’s language acquisition programs – whether bilingual instruction, English as a second language or full immersion – perform so dismally as to trap many students in dependency on Spanish.

Likewise, she senses growing public impatience with this state of affairs – impatience that could easily throw support to a backlash like California’s Proposition 227, which in June severely restricted bilingual teaching by legal fiat.

Hence the importance of Monday’s gripe session at the Pima Main Library. With that and several other projected sessions, the state’s top educator hopes herself to begin effecting changes in the state’s language teaching before others take rasher action.

Keegan promises to use the sessions to ascertain what changes her office can make unilaterally. For instance, she might change the tests the state uses to identify English deficits, which now gauge students’ skills relative to each other rather than by comparison to objective benchmarks. Such tests draft some students into ESL or bilingual courses who don’t need them.

Keegan wants also to identify and showcase a list of programs around the state that can be proven to instill English proficiency. Such “best-practice” dissemination makes excellent sense at a time of vague arguments and abstract claims. It will provide schools concrete models for quickly improving their programs.

Educators – and especially bilingual education proponents – should urgently embrace Lisa Graham Keegan’s bid to improve the way this state teaches English to its non-English-speaking students. Keegan’s meetings may not be enough to really change things, yet even so there is no alternative. Tucson educators need to start fixing English- language teaching themselves – or they will end up watching others try to do it in harsher ways.

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