In the 51 school districts across Massachusetts that enroll immigrant, migrant and refugee children, there is a special program designed to help these children learn English. It is called “transitional bilingual education” and was voted into law by the state Legislature in 1971. Recently the state Board of Education voted unanimously to make the first changes in 26 years in the rules governing “bilingual education.” The shrieks of protest from bilingual education supporters could be heard from Beacon Hill to the Berkshires.
The experiment called “bilingual education” is one of the worst failures in education history and its reform is long overdue. Massachusetts, first in the United States to require “bilingual education,” has yet to report any concrete evidence of improved school performance or any improvement in the dropout rate for limited-English students, especially Latinos. California, the state with 1.3 million limited-English students and 20 years experience with bilingual programs, also reports poor results in academic achievement and continued high dropout rates for Spanish speakers, the group most involved in bilingual education.
Why is ths program such a failure and what can we do to give limited-English students a better education? The basic idea was absurd from the beginning. How could children be expected to learn the English language and learn school subjects taught in English if they were taught in Spanish (or Russian or Cantonese) most of the school day for several years? The bilingual teaching idea was taken on faith, but now its serious drawbacks are obvious: segregation of immigrant children into separate classrooms for several years, “bilingual” teachers who hardly know the English language, lack of textbooks and teaching materials in the 300 languages now represented in U.S. classrooms.
Thirty years of evaluative research on bilingual education programs, at a cost of over $ 100 million, has now been reviewed by the National Research Council, a division of the National Academy of Sciences. This new study concludes:
* There is no evidence that native language teaching is helping limited-English students.
* Teaching children to read in English, instead of in the native language first, does not have negative consequences.
* Emphazing cultural and ethnic differences is counterproductive. It doesn’t lead to more self-esteem; it leads to stereotyping and reinforces the differences of language-minority children from the majority.
* Minority teachers are no more effective than non-minority teachers at educating minority children.
Education reform in Massachusetts will have little effect on the opportunities for limited-English students if we don’t take heed of the findings in the NRC report. The state Board of Education has taken the first small steps in loosening the tight and unreasonable restrictions of the bilingual education rules. It’s too bad the Massachusetts Legislature can’t see the wisdom in changing in the law itself.
We should remove the requirement that children must be taught all their school subjects in the native language, give each district the flexibility to design its own program, train staff to concentrate on the early and intensive teaching of English for academic success, integrate language-minority students with their English-speaking classmates, continue supplementary education funding for limited-English students and hold the schools accountable at last for testing bilingual students each year and reporting on how they are progressing in their English language skills and in their learning of school subjects. If we put off these necessary changes, we will allow another generation of language-minority children, mostly from families of poverty, to be ill-served by inferior, segregated schooling.
Even after 26 years experience with bilingual education in Massachusetts there is a lot to be learned. We don’t know the reason for the academic under-achievement of Latino youth (who are most likely to be enrolled in native language classrooms), or why they are out-performed by students from other immigrant groups, principally the speakers of Asian languages (who are almost never in native language programs).
Right now, language-minority children need schools that give them an early mastery of the English language, teachers who hold them to high learning standards are capable of helping the students meet such standards and as much opportunity as possible to mingle with English-speaking students in academic and extra-curricular activities. Removing the language barrier to an equal education is the absolutely essential first step. Let’s get on with it.
Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Ed.D., is director of the Institute for Research in English Acquisition & Development in Amherst.