Debate on bilingual education should correct misconceptions

For the past 15 years I have urged the state Legislature to modify the bilingual education law (Chapter 71-A) whenever a relevant bill was introduced. To this date, absolutely nothing has changed.

Now, with my two colleagues, Lincoln Tamayo, on leave as principal of Chelsea High School, and professor Christine Rossell of Boston University, I am helping to lead a campaign called English for the Children.”

We expect to put this question on the November 2002 ballot: Do Bay State voters want immigrant/migrant/refugee children to be taught English as soon as they enter our public schools? I believe we will hear a resounding yes, as has been heard in California and Arizona on this same question.

To give the public the best understanding of the English for the Children campaign, we must make clear what we mean by structured English immersion,” the educational program we propose. It is an all-too-common mistake to think that an immersion program puts kids in regular classrooms and leaves them to pick up” the new language by themselves.

That was the case when I arrived in a Newark, N.J., school at age 6, not knowing a word of English. I was left to sink or swim with no special help of any kind. That was not a program, but a policy of shameful neglect of the needs of non-English-speaking children. It is not an option in the current initiative.

English immersion is a very professional, English-language teaching program that requires trained teachers, a special curriculum and textbooks, and a sheltered classroom consisting only of English-language learners. English immersion programs have been thriving elsewhere in the United States for 25 years- but not in Massachusetts.

As a Spanish-English bilingual teacher in the Springfield public schools and, later, as the coordinator of programs for limited-English students in the Newton public schools, I used English immersion techniques and trained teachers in these methods. The absolutely crucial idea of this approach is that you teach children English from day one, starting with survival” vocabulary, such as people’s names, classroom objects and school facilities, including bathrooms, cafeteria, library and gymnasium. Never would a child in this classroom be there for a year without knowing the meaning of the exclamation Fire!” or how to respond to such a shout.

Sheltered-immersion classrooms focus on teaching children the English language and school subjects at the same time, using real objects, pictures, films and computer programs. For example, a science or math lesson can begin by teaching the vocabulary of math and science in English, and the language for describing the experiment. The goal is the rapid and effective integration of limited-English students in mainstream classrooms with their English-speaking classmates. That is a far superior approach than segregating of Spanish-speaking students in native-language instruction classrooms for most of the school day and for several years.

Current law does not allow local choice of programs. The tired argument voiced for years by bilingual education supporters is that parents have the right not to have their children in bilingual classrooms. That means the choice is between bilingual classes or no special help at all.

It is because of this rigid mandate in Massachusetts that an initiative petition is necessary. Even though English-language teaching programs are not now a legal choice in this state, a few districts are openly undertaking such innovations, and others have quietly but secretly provided this option.

Massachusetts has much to answer for: It was the first state to pass a bilingual education law 30 years ago, but it has failed to obey that law as far as reporting on bilingual student achievement. No state study has ever been done on the progress of these students in learning English and in learning their school subjects- in any language- until the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test arrived. Until 1998, these students were routinely excused from state tests. What urgently needs to be studied now is what kind of teaching is going on in the districts where limited-English students are showing the highest levels of achievement.

It is important that the voting public not be mislead by the opponents of this initiative as to what the campaign is about. Improving the quality of education for children who lack a sufficient knowledge of English when they enter our schools requires that we address the highest priority first- removing the language barrier to an equal education. That is the goal of all state and federal laws, and it’s time to begin at the beginning with a strong English-language teaching program, with high expectations for student success, and with further remedial help for those who need it.

Time is up for insisting exclusively on bilingual education.

Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Ed.D, of Amherst, is the author of Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education,” and is a consultant to school districts across the country.

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