School Choice on Bilingual Ed

Voters in Colorado and Massachusetts soon will have the opportunity to follow their counterparts in California and Arizona and do away with bilingual education.

They shouldn't take it. Not because bilingual ed is an unqualified success. Controversies over its effectiveness remain. But because the two initiatives on state ballots this fall are simply too categorical in their assertion that there's only one right way to teach non-English speakers – that is, a year of immersion in English.

The opposite approach – letting parents have the final say – is wrong, too (see Opinion piece). These initiatives would strip local educators of the ability to choose methods that best fit local needs and individual students. The decisionmakers closest to a community shouldn't have their choices pinched off by state mandates or by parents who don't understand how a school tailors its classroom education.

A school's choice may well include immersion, which often works well for motivated immigrant students with middle-income, well-educated parents. But it may not work as well, say, for kids from poor, educationally deprived homes. And it may not work as well for middle or high schoolers as it is does for K-3 kids.

Many schools offer teaching in students primary language to help them keep pace in subjects such as math or science, with English taught more slowly than through full immersion. Massachusetts keeps students in bilingual classes an average of two and a half years before mainstreaming them into English-language classes. Supporters say the system is working.

Studies of various approaches haven't been conclusive, largely because they haven't followed children long enough to assess success in later life. Some studies have tended to show that students who were immersed in English did better, on average, as they progressed through school. Researchers also have found that students proficient in more than one language had an advantage in college and beyond.

Bilingualism, or multilingualism, is a rapidly growing feature of American life. But some people see it as allowing huge communities of non-English speakers to exist for generations, which only fractures the nation's basic commonality of language and civic life. Thus the sense of urgency to assimilate immigrant children into English. But immersion classes can also leave some students behind academically, causing them to drop out in high school.

Local schools, with differing immigrant populations, should be given the flexibility and the resources to tailor a program for each student. Voters, as well as parents, should be leery of approaches that narrow the options of educators in doing their job.

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