California is currently considering legislation, called Proposition 227, which would end bilingual education. The debate runs hot and heavy with both sides proclaiming their positions from billboards along the highways, in long, passionate newspaper pieces and at dinner tables. (I know because I’m in California writing this.) Right now, the polls are running 63 percent for getting rid of it and 23 percent firmly committed to keeping it.

This issue, which in Rhode Island only festers quietly, could easily turn ugly because it involves money, resentment, poor accountability and strong feelings about cultural identity.

Bilingual education is the practice of teaching non-native speaking children in their native language, gradually shifting the primary language in which they learn to English until the children can be mainstreamed into classes with their English-speaking peers.

The shift is supposed to take place in about three years. Across the nation, these programs most frequently serve Hispanic children, but Rhode Island has a few Portuguese programs as well.

Advocates believe that teaching immigrant children in a language they understand allows children to become grounded in academics and skills before making the academically disruptive switch into English. Once learned, academic skills translate easily from one language to the other.

The alternative to bilingual education, usually called English immersion, concentrates on teaching the child English-language fluency and puts academic skills on hold, usually for about a year. Advocates argue that bilingual education gives children’s education a forward momentum as it weans them from their native language. In short, they learn about learning, get a sense of progress first and then make the transition into what is to them a foreign language.

Opponents, in California and nationally, argue that the children in bilingual education rarely transition out of the program in the required three years, and are slow to acquire English skills. These children, according to opponents, become fully grounded neither in Spanish nor English, and their education suffers seriously. English immersion or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs move the children as quickly as possible through the period of disorientation until they emerge capable of learning and achieving in English at a rate comparable to their American-born counterparts.

Interestingly, contingents on both sides consider the other’s point of view racist. The pro-bilingual education advocates believe their language and culture is being taken away from them. The opponents, many of whom are Hispanic parents, believe that bilingual education handicaps children in a way that systematically reduces their future options and economic prospects.

Several administrative and economic facts need to be considered:

Bilingual teachers are more expensive to hire than regular teachers, making such programs pricey to run. So, like budget lines for art or any seeming “extra,” bilingual education always tempts budget cutters as expendable.

Bilingual teachers are much harder to find than regular teachers, even with the increased pay incentives. Bilingual special education teachers are a nightmare to find, although eliminating bilingual education will only somewhat mitigate the need for teachers who can communicate effectively with special needs children.

Some bilingual teachers are not fully proficient in English.

While the evidence against bilingual education seems damning, consider the school community in Miami, Fla., which is utterly baffled by the California situation. They consider bilingual education an absolute necessity for their economic development. Much of Florida’s commerce and trade is conducted in both Spanish and Portuguese, and a significant number of Miami schools are self-consciously developing a work force that can meet the needs of the local business community.

Miami’s solution has been to create what are known as “dual immersion,” or two-way bilingual schools. All children learn for three hours a day in English and two hours in Spanish or Portuguese. Native speakers learn a second language in the course of their regular education, not as an add-on, but as a language to use when learning other subjects. Non-native speakers become proficient in both languages, which is not an objective in regular bilingual education where the native language eventually gets discarded.

What could this all mean for Rhode Island?

First, California has repeatedly demonstrated why becoming politically polarized never works out well for the students. First they mandate “whole language,” now they’ve thrown it out and mandate phonics. By now everyone knows that children need both in varying degrees. Presumably they’ll have to get to the legislature to straighten that out.

So to throw out bilingual education, across the board, is to heave out a lot of baby with the bathwater. As always, the best strategy is to step back and ask what might be good for the children.

Two-way bilingual schools are a swell idea. Two hundred such schools are up and running across the U.S., providing excellent models to examine and copy. Such schools are quite popular with native parents, especially those who correctly harp on the fact that internationally all good schools ground their students deeply in at least one other language. A two-way bilingual school (or schools) along with a Newcomers’ school would be real assets to the current options.

Perhaps most important would be for us to take a good hard look at our existing bilingual programs and assess their value. Both sides of the bilingual debate cite studies that support their respective positions; we would do best to study our offerings correctly. The Providence School Department, for example, has the data capabilities (if not the manpower) to follow a particular student over time to see how he or she has performed.

When children were in bilingual programs in elementary school, how well did they perform in high school? How does that performance compare with children who were in ESL programs? How do children in both of those programs compare with regular education children with similar socioeconomic backgrounds? We should find out how our programs are performing.

This issue is coming to Rhode Island. Both creative thinking and hard evidence would prevent it from erupting emotionally, which would give us a much better shot at making good decisions than poor California has now.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board, a playwright and freelance copywriter. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by E-mail at [email protected] or c/o EdWatch, Issues & Ideas, Providence Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.

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