The recent Department of Public Instruction report citing deficiencies in the Madison School District’s English as a second language program needs itself to be studied. It is a report written with generalized data, couched in trendy jargon, suggesting that bilingual education is urgently needed in the Madison schools.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bilingual education is the process in which a subject – say, math – is taught in the native language. ESL teaches content in the target language (English) while offering support in a student’s native language. The argument is that students will learn content faster in their native language than the target language.

But this is questionable considering the low skill and educational levels of the recent influx of Latino students. The information they would be learning would be no more familiar in Spanish than in English. Their need to develop skills and fluency in English far outweighs their need to develop skills in Spanish.

I urge our community to question the district’s move toward bilingual education – especially when exactly the contrary is happening in some other school districts (the Twin Cities) and states (California) throughout the country.

Bilingual programs are being dismantled and discarded. They are an anachronism and an enabling tool that minorities (non-English speaking students) do not need.

Over the years, Madison schools have received waves of students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Tibet, Korea, China, Albania, and Mexico and other Latin American countries. ESL programs were implemented with the goal of teaching these students English intensively in order for them to develop the necessary skills to function comfortably in the regular classroom as soon as possible.

This program has been highly successful. Very few of these students received or needed bilingual education, although specialists were and are available to help bridge any gaps in the classroom, and to communicate with parents, who in many cases knew less English than their children.

As I understand it, the bilingual impetus is designed to target primarily Latino students. By teaching Latino students in Spanish, are we not simply postponing the inevitable? In order for them to be productive and independent citizens in the society in which they plan to stay, they must learn English and enter the mainstream of society as quickly as possible. Bilingual education will not accomplish that.

Certainly their desires to maintain language and culture should be respected. But that is the responsibility of their community support group, just as it has been with the Koreans, the Chinese, the Albanians and, most notably, the Hmong.

How can our school district provide bilingual education for one minority (Latinos), and ignore the rest of our non-English speaking families? Or is it the intent of the school district to provide bilingual education for each of the nearly 50 non-English speaking groups in our school district?

I applaud the efforts and dedication of the ESL teachers and support staff in the Madison School District. I have personally witnessed many successes in this program. The unfair and unjustified criticisms by our superintendent and the new coordinator of the ESL program have had a profoundly demoralizing effect on teachers who for years have been doing superlative work.

Zintel, Cross Plains, has taught Spanish at Madison West High School for 31 years. In 1998, he received a Fellowship Award from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation.

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