Bilingual Schooling

Here's a statistic that should grab the attention of everyone pushing for more effective public schools: Over the past decade, the number of students in the United States with limited ability to speak English has doubled, to 5 million.

Most of them are Spanish-speakers, but in some cities, like New York, dozens of languages reach the classroom. School districts across the US face the dilemma of bringing the children of recent immigrants up to speed in English as quickly as possible, so they can pass state standardized tests. Chronic poor performance on the tests by students could risk state intervention or a loss of federal aid.

But how to boost performance of English-deficient youngsters is one of education's longer-running debates. It boils down to two approaches: (1) immerse students in English instruction in order to move them quickly to mainstream classes; (2) as they learn English, teach them basic subjects in their native language so they don't fall behind and are able to make a better transition to English-language classes.

Both approaches have had some success. Advocates from each side must find common ground to ensure a good education for all. Districts should be able to adopt the approach that fits local needs and resources.

A crucial need is for more teachers trained to teach English to nonspeakers, or whose language skills are sufficient to handle a transitional bilingual program. Some administrators have encouraged all their teachers to get training in English as a Second Language. Above all, students short on English can't be allowed to drift and fail – a tendency still all too prevalent among Hispanic youth.

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