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A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
No on Question 2 English immersion

10/28/2002

ON ELECTION DAY, voters will decide an important education issue: Should school districts put virtually all their students from foreign-language families into one-year English immersion classes or into the classes the districts think best for individual students?

The same dissatisfaction with the status quo in bilingual education that prompted this ballot question also spurred the Legislature last summer to overhaul the system. Local districts should have a chance to make the new law work before a ''one size fits all'' model is imposed on them. The Globe recommends a No vote on Question 2.

The choice is not whether to teach students English or not. All schools have that goal. Until recently, many schools tried to achieve it by combining English instruction with subject classes in the students' first language. The idea was to keep them from falling too far behind in math or science while their English improved enough to master those subjects.

This approach has had mixed results, in part because districts have often lacked truly qualified bilingual teachers, fluent in both languages and strong in the subject courses. The law enacted in August requires higher standards of teachers and strict accountability of students' progress in English. Districts can offer immersion or bilingual instruction or continue with the highly popular and successful two-way bilingual programs, in which English speakers and Spanish or Chinese speakers learn together, helping each other master the other's language. Two-way bilingual would be banned if Question 2 passes.

The ballot question sponsor, California millionaire Ron Unz, often refers to the success immigrants had years ago learning English through immersion. Most, in fact, did learn enough to do factory work. But could they have passed the MCAS test? To bring newcomers to that level, schools should be allowed to tailor methods to their students.

With high-quality teachers, Unz's ''sheltered'' immersion model can work, especially with younger children. Heavily Hispanic Lawrence has been offering it to families, but teachers there are allowed to help children with an amount of Spanish that would be illegal under the ballot question. 

That is the problem with the ballot question's rigid approach to education reform - it even includes a punitive clause under which teachers could be sued for using too much foreign language. Strict adherence to the question could throw immigrants' education back to conditions 30 years ago, when dropout rates of Hispanics, in particular, were much higher than they have been since bilingual education was introduced. By voting no, voters will let superintendents, principals, and teachers pick the models - immersion, bilingual, two-way bilingual - that work best with their students and their staff.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 10/28/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.