Meaningful bilingual reform needed in Massachusetts schools

At hearings last week, the Massachusetts Legislature examined various proposals to reform the state’s bilingual education programs.

One plan, sponsored by New Bedford Representative Antonio Cabral, seems to be emerging as the current favorite, and earned the endorsement of Massachusetts Education Commissioner David Driscoll.

Several legislators warned that unless the state took some substantial action soon, reform activists could take matters into their own hands with a statewide ballot initiative in 2002. But the Cabral proposal offers too little change. If the Legislature is seeking a preemptive reform measure to ward off the spectre of a potential referendum, it will take more than this.

For the 44,000 English learners currently in bilingual education classes in commonwealth public schools, nothing could be more timely, or more helpful, than to adopt meaningful reform of the programs that for them have become little more than language ghettos. Parents want their children to have the opportunity to learn English early on in their education. The Cabral plan purports to address this need by implementing a new bilingual structured immersion model” as a new alternative for parents.

But under that immersion” model, 30 percent of the day would still be conducted in students’ non-English native language. Is that the best alternative Massachusetts policymakers can come up with?

State Sen. Guy Glodis, a Worcester Democrat, has for the second time come forward with the boldest reform proposal, modeled after the ballot initiatives which effectively eliminated bilingual education in California and Arizona. The programs would be replaced with a one-year, structured English immersion program.

A second proposal, by Longmeadow Republican Representative Mary Rogeness, would take more moderate, but valuable steps including requiring parental consent prior to students’ placement in bilingual programs and mandating that teachers of bilingual programs be fluent in English.

Since California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, the dramatic improvements by English learners have been well documented and widely reported. Second grade English learners improved their standardized test scores by 9 percentile points in reading and 14 percentile points in math since they started learning in English. The biggest improvements were at the lowest grades and in school districts that complied most thoroughly and rapidly with the new law.

Ever since the rest of the country began to see how well California’s English learners were doing in their new English immersion classes, bilingual reform has become one of the fastest-moving public policy movements in the nation. There are many different ways to bring about meaningful reform, as the different reforms enacted around the nation, from Democrats and Republicans alike, have demonstrated.

Connecticut adopted a 30-month limit on the duration students can remain in transitional language programs. Denver and Chicago public schools employ three-year limits. Arizona first passed a law requiring that schools obtain a parent’s permission prior to placing their child in bilingual education, and then passed a ballot initiative to end bilingual education altogether.

The New York City Board of Education created new English immersion classes to give parents the choice of how they wanted their children to learn English. And a subsequent California law offers school districts one-time grants of $100 for each 4th- to 8th-grade English learner successfully reclassified as proficient in English.

Massachusetts law currently requires schools to offer bilingual education when at least 20 students in the district speak the same, non-English native language. This spring, the U.S. House of Representatives heard testimony from Rosalie Porter, a member of the Governor’s Education Reform Review Commission, that Limited English Proficient students scored lower than mainstream students on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in all subjects and on all grade levels tested.

It is evident that these programs, that were designed to be transitional, are not getting the job done, and instead are doing a terrible disservice to the very students they were created to help.

Even if Massachusetts chooses not to eliminate bilingual education, there are other ways to bring about meaningful reform. But to fail to do so at all would be to make a terrible mistake.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

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