AS A PERSON of Portuguese descent, I read with great interest and much concern your Aug. 8 editorial (“Bilingual ed in Mass.”) that decried bilingual education. The piece supported one effort in Massachusetts, similar to proposals in California and Arizona, to reform bilingual education, by imposing a one-year limit on student placement in a bilingual classroom.
As the father of three children and the grandfather of two young children, I have an intense interest in young people and ways to better the quality of their lives. I also believe strongly that the surest path to a richer and better quality of life is through an excellent education. My parents preached the value of a good education and my successful experience in the public schools of Pawtucket only reinforced that belief. However, I am also aware that not everyone shares the same positive experience. As a young boy, I recall the often degrading experience of my older immigrant classmates, who, to be immersed in English-only classes, were placed in first- and second-grade classes with children several years younger. I often reflect on the psychic shock to those young adolescents new to this country. With very little sensitivity shown to their needs, many left school prematurely.
So as I read the editorial, I reflected on my own experience as the child of immigrant parents and also on my tenure as a state legislator who has tried to remove barriers and make education more accessible to all.
I have to say that I have been impressed with much of the work taking place in education today: our national commitment to high standards for all children; the innovative thinking going into alternative approaches to assessments to ensure all children can be tested fairly; the work being done with making school curricula more student-centered and instruction more personalized; the new theories of multiple intelligences, brain research; and I could go on.
It’s apparent to me that we have shifted from a sifting and sorting educational model to one that is more focused on human development. This, to me, is a good thing.
With this understanding, I now think about bilingual education and the real merits and advantages for children and their families. Through this approach to education, we are demonstrating that we value the total child, including his or her language and culture. We see these as assets to build upon, rich material to use for instruction. Culture and language are intimately connected to thinking and thought. What can be more student-centered and personal than this? What can be more committed to the child’s self-image and self-worth? Bilingual education also guarantees that the parent and child will be able to have deep conversations throughout the child’s education.
This approach to education honors the parent/child bond. Parents, grandparents and extended family members can continue with the awesome and complicated task of bringing up their children. Society can be assured of having all the supports and social relationships in place that are needed, in these complicated times, to bring the child through to adulthood. I don’t believe our schools should think they can take on the role of a surrogate parent.
Recently, I spoke with educators at the Education Alliance at Brown University, an organization that conducts research and development in education reform. One area of reform in which they specialize is the education of English-language learners. Here is what I have learned: Bilingual education’s primary goal is to teach English. The child’s first language is used to develop critical concepts and content knowledge that the child would not be able to learn solely in English, thus expediting learning and continuing the child’s cognitive development.
Developing literacy in the first language is a shortcut to literacy in the second language. It is easier to learn to read in a language you understand. Once you can read in one language, this knowledge transfers rapidly to any other language you learn to read. Once you can read, you can read. Research studies have shown that learning an advanced, technical subjects through the first language makes the study of the subject matter in English more comprehensible.
As a citizen and elected official, I sometimes hear that bilingual education is not working. Some believe that comprehensive research supporting its merits is scarce. However, I learned about a research project at the Education Alliance’s Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory that seeks out exemplary programs. The project, Portraits of Success, identifies schools that have implemented bilingual programs for three years or more, and have student performance data indicating that students have achieved above the standard in reading and math. The project includes information about how these schools and programs have been embraced and supported by their entire community.
In many cases they have been given community awards for excellence. It was encouraging to find hard evidence (in student-achievement test scores) that this is truly a viable and thoughtful way to educate our English-language-learner student population.
Bilingual education is not immune to the myriad of problems faced by all education programs (poor implementation models, lack of resources, lack of qualified personnel, lack of parental involvement, etc.). However, these problems should not be used as excuses to dismiss a very appropriate, humanistic and effective approach to educating our diverse student populations.
Sometimes we need to put politics aside and examine the facts. Let’s reform bilingual education, but let’s not abolish it. Remember: Education is the great equalizer.
Rhode Island state Rep. Antonio Pires is former chairman of the Rhode Island House Finance Committee.