Bilingualism issue rises again

Immigration legislation puts fresh attention on teaching methods.

When Mark Chesley's seventh-grade science students understand what a prokaryotic cell does to reproduce, but not how to explain it, Mr. Chesley urges them to use their hands to illustrate the verb "pinching." Later, he teaches them to pronounce "binary fission."

At Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Lynn, Mass., where student enrollment can ebb and flow with immigration patterns, lessons that might have taken Chesley a day to teach to native English speakers often span two or three days in the state's controversial Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) program. "This is the hardest job I've ever had," Chesley said after class recently.

Massachusetts is one of three states – along with California and Arizona – that did away with bilingual education several years ago. But a recent Boston Globe survey of state test results indicates the new program has largely failed in its goal: to quickly immerse students in English so they're ready to join regular classes after a year.

Now, increased attention to immigration on Capitol Hill, including an amendment in the recent Senate bill that would declare English the national language, is again putting focus a growing immigrant population. In schools, the issue has been primarily how to rapidly get non-English speakers – whose academic performance is measured under the No Child Left Behind law – up to speed in English-speaking classrooms.

But educators are divided about whether immersion or bilingual programs work best, and many are starting to focus on the quality of instruction rather than the type of program.

"It's a very interesting patchwork of situations in which there's all this state policy involvement in diametrically opposed directions," says Robert Slavin, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "This is so political, on both sides, that the evidence only enters in when it's used as a cudgel by either side."

The issue first became a lightning rod a decade ago in California, when some immigrant parents and others protested the fact that non-English-speaking students were kept separate and taught many subjects in their own languages – a method they felt kept these students from learning English as quickly as they should. A 1998 ballot initiative passed, largely eliminating bilingual education from public schools, and placing non-English speakers in English-immersion programs.

Arizona followed suit, and in 2002, Massachusetts became the third state to vote out bilingual education. Students who were once taught primarily in their native languages are now put in SEI classrooms where Spanish or Portuguese or other languages are used solely for clarification purposes.

But as educators analyze the results of the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment tests, which will be released to the public later this month, some doubt how well the new program is working.

The goal is to keep English learners separated from their peers for no more than a year. But in Lynn, where about 18 percent of students have limited English proficiency, the head of the district's language program says most elementary students stay in SEI classrooms for about two years. It can take longer for older students.

"One year is tough," says Rania Ioannidis, the English Language Learners Curriculum instructional teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School. She says students often pick up the oral skills first, but the nuances of academic lessons and writing elude them for much longer.

The Boston Globe review showed that 83 percent of English-language learners in Grades 3 through 12 still weren't fluent enough in English to join regular classes after a year, and more than half weren't fluent after three years – perhaps in part because the rules had been inconsistently applied and some districts have struggled to set up an intensive program for English as a second language.

Ron Unz, the California businessman who spearheaded all three ballot measures, says he's more convinced than ever that getting rid of bilingual education is the only way to teach immigrant children. "You can argue about what it means for a state or for America to have English as its official language, but the one practical issue you could talk about is making sure schools teach English to children," he says.

Mr. Unz claims that over four years, the academic performance of 1 million immigrant students put in immersion programs in California roughly doubled, while students who were still in bilingual programs didn't improve. He bases his findings on California test scores posted online.

But Professor Slavin says such claims – outside a scientific study – should be taken lightly. Of the high-level research, he says, numerous studies have found that kids learn best if their native language is given an important role, and many studies have found there's no difference.

"Virtually no studies find that it's better to be taught in English only," he says. The most effective programs, he says, seem to be the "dual language" ones in which children spend parts of each day in English and in their native language.

According to one report, more than 4 million students with limited English were enrolled in public schools in the 2000-01 school year, making up about 10 percent of all students.

Proponents of traditional bilingual education say no one questions that learning English is a primary goal – but they don't want children's native languages forgotten in the process. "We want to compete in the global market right now, and the only way to do that is with kids who have embraced another language early on," says Pedro Ruíz, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington.

Most of the early claims about the failure of bilingual ed had to do with the quality of the programs, he says, particularly when the challenge of finding qualified bilingual teachers led to subpar hiring decisions.

"Academically, the programs have changed," he says.

Indeed, bilingual education wasn't any less controversial when it was first mandated in the early 1970s – in Massachusetts, among other states. "Like so many things in education, one day the law said you had to have bilingual education. The next day it was not allowed. There are problems on both sides," says Slavin. "It should be a matter for local control and research."

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