You’ve got to love the state Board of Education for its sheer nerve.

We’ve got problems with bilingual education, the board says. Too many immigrant kids are taking too long to learn English, staying in separate bilingual classes for years in a sort of parallel, and costly, universe.

So, in a wave of its regulatory wand, the board says schools can have bigger bilingual classes and less parental involvement. And discourage bilingual kindergartens, too.

So what if all the education experts say kids do better in schools with smaller classes and lots of parental involvement?

So what if research shows that kids learn English best the younger they start? Let’s follow up, the board announces, by endorsing the governor’s “Just-Say-It’s-So” approach, kind of a hard-love version of wishful thinking.

If you have kids languishing in crummy bilingual programs, the theory goes, don’t work to improve the programs, don’t look into the quality of the teaching or curriculum. Nope. In the parallel universe of the Board of Education, just say kids will learn in X-number of years, and, by golly, they will. Or else.


Dan Lam, a Randolph selectmen who translates for parents with students in the town’s bilingual program, is one of many observers shaking his head, and wondering what the “or else” will be. “Do we really have the best interests of kids in mind?” he asks.

Lam, 52, is one of those amazing immigrant stories: a successful and giving person whose early life was grim and desperate.

Born in Cambodia, he grew up in a slum, where his mother peddled iced water and he roamed the streets until he found religion.

He learned English from missionaries at a Bible college in Hong Kong, and later in graduate school in the United States. He abandoned his dreams of going back to Cambodia to teach when the Khmer Rouge put him on a death list.

He applied for U.S. citizenship the first day he was eligible, the first citizenship he ever had; Cambodia didn’t recognize people with Chinese blood.

Since then, he’s taught college, headed the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants and now works on a violence prevention project through the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office. Almost all his work has involved people with limited or no English.

He’s particularly interested in this latest approach toward bilingual education because of the effect it will have not only on kids, but on their communities.

“If the motivation is to put pressure on children to work hard, fine. Anything we can do to prepare students to mainstream into regular classes should be supported.

What happens?

“But the question is: What happens if a kid really works hard and then after (the set time) still doesn’t make it? Are we saying, ‘Kid, tough luck, you’re on your own?’

“Let’s go to the extreme and say the kid goes into a mainstream class and founders and is totally demoralized and drops out. Chances are good he will go into crime in his community.

“Common sense dictates that children have different learning styles and abilities, react differently to their new cultures. Rigidity isn’t the answer.”

Lam also worries about the flexibility the state is giving local schools by relaxing bilingual program requirements for such things as kindergarten and guidance counselors, and by allowing larger classes.

“If a district is committed to really meeting the needs of the kids, flexibility can be really good,” Lam said. “But it can be a disaster. I wonder what the state will do if it is a disaster?

“And eliminating the (parents’ groups) is a serious, serious mistake. Unless you have parents yelling and screaming on the side, most schools will do as little as possible.”

And, with the blessing of the state Board of Education, it appears.

Johanna Seltz’s column is a regular feature of The Patriot Ledger Weekend edition. If you have column ideas or suggestions, please call 786-7023 weekdays.

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