School Choice on Bilingual Ed
The Christian Science Monitor --Monitor View
October 17, 2002
Voters in Colorado and Massachusetts soon will have the opportunity to follow
their counterparts in California and Arizona and do away with bilingual
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
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
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.