Belief that ESL is a Bilingual Program Reflects Schools' Problems

State Sen. Jo Ann Graves had the passion more than any elected official in Tennessee I’ve heard address this education issue.

The Gallatin Democrat just did not have all the correct information at a July legislative hearing.

Graves stressed the need for state support of English language education for immigrant children in her Sumner County district.

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tennessee has the fifth-highest percentage increase in the nation for growth in Hispanic residents. Conditions Graves described are not going to get better without significant state action.

Yet Graves’ next remark showed an obstacle that also needs to be hurdled. She noted the difficulty hiring more ESL teachers because they need to speak students’ native languages.

ESL teachers do not have to speak the native language of their students. With few exceptions, only English is used to teach immigrant children here. Tennessee endorses English as a Second Language, a program of immersion in the language of America’s majority.

That’s one of the most misunderstood facts about English language education here. And it’s emblematic of a lack of awareness that must be attacked.

A La Vergne reader, citing California test results after curtailment of bilingual education there, e-mailed this:

“There is no need for bilingual education in the schools. Hell, in California they used it and it didn’t work. . . . I will do whatever it takes to make sure that the schools in my area don’t waste any money on a failed program like you want.”

Again, there is NO bilingual education here. The battle in Tennessee and Nashville is to get proper funding for immersion.

In California, test scores for students did rise. But the state also invested mega millions to reduce class sizes for immigrant children, boost teacher training and provide remedial reading programs. Tennessee has no annual ESL appropriation.

Darker sentiments motivate some opinions. In his offensive e-mail, one Nashville reader showed that bigotry has easily crossed into a new millennium:

“English is the language these people must learn when they come here. It is not our duty to provide this to them; again, GO HOME! They are drunks and drug people. We already have enough of that with the blacks that WE imported.”

There are three U.S. Supreme Court decisions that explain why these children must be helped. But another reader provided a better answer, quoting remarks by U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers at a conference, “The New Wealth of Nations.”

“The most robust empirical finding about the new economy is that the return on investment in human capital has risen faster than the return on investment in physical capital. If investments in factories were the most important investments in the industrial age, the most important investments in an information age are surely investments in the human brain.”

By 2030, one in four K-12 students in the United States will be Hispanic. Meanwhile, the Hispanic dropout rate for 16- to 24-year-olds born outside the United States has reached 44%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Those numbers show dramatic action is needed to develop America’s human capital of the future. But first, we must make ignorance and misinformation about English language education a thing of the past.

Tim Chavez can be reached at 259-8304 or [email protected]

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