Goal should be all students reading in English as quickly as possible
Dallas Morning News
October 2, 2007
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William McKenzie


Get ready. The next big educational struggle is coming. And it could be as bloody as Washington's battles over immigration.
 
I'm talking about the struggle many U.S. students have with reading well enough to learn subjects like science and history in English. In Texas, for example, about 15 percent of students lack the ability to learn core subjects in English.
 
The issue will gain juice because of demographic shifts around the country and I don't mean only in states like Texas, California and Florida, which have long had large Latino populations. Latinos are becoming big parts of the population in Georgia, Colorado and Iowa, too.
 
Terms like bilingual education, limited English proficiency instruction and English-language learners have floated in and out of schoolhouse discussions for a while. Population shifts give the discussion new impetus, and that's probably why Congress is getting into this subject in a big way.
 
The House education committee is considering a serious change in the length of time students have to learn to read in a language other than English. The proposal is only in discussion-draft form, but it has caused a stir in Washington as Congress gets ready to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act.
 
The proposal suggests that students not proficient in English be given up to five years before they are tested in their ability to read in English. Actually, that could be extended to seven years because students could get two extensions of one year each, on a case-by-case basis.
 
Several experts I spoke to last week seem to agree that it could easily take five years before a student turns English into his or her "academic language."
 
Dr. Whit Johnstone, who oversees testing for the Irving school district, says children can get up to speed in English faster than five years, but that doesn't mean we know whether they really comprehend subjects in that language.
 
I hear that, but I'm with the Bush administration on this for a gut reason. Five to seven years of being tested in a language other than English seems way too long.
 
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings makes sense when she says the change basically would allow students to go through 10th grade without being tested in English. (No Child requires children be tested in grades 3 through 8 and 10 in subjects like math, reading and history.)
 
That just doesn't pass the smell test. Our country needs to know what kids know in English long before high school. By then, it may be too late to reverse any damage.
 
That doesn't mean we shouldn't seriously invest in classes that help children learn in English. It's a tricky business, getting people to develop "an academic language" in a language different from their original tongue.
 
>From talking with people who study this challenge, it appears there is no single answer. Sandy Kress, an Austin attorney who once chaired the Dallas school board and negotiated No Child for President Bush in 2001, says schools need an organized program that "takes kids where they are."
 
Interestingly, most everyone I interviewed said the same thing. They disagreed about whether "English-language learners" should get up to seven years of testing in another language. But they all agreed that the right kind of instruction depends upon the individual kid.
 
And that will mean money, folks. For example, state Sen. Florence Shapiro of Plano says experts told her education committee that it's much harder to learn English in classes of 20 or more.
 
What I'm hoping for is a Third Way. Forget testing kids for as long as seven years in a language other than English. But invest significantly in ways that help them learn in English, such as placing them in intense classes early in their school years, when so many fundamentals are built.
 
Judging from the heated immigration debate, some may object to this path. But our country has a lot riding on getting this one right.
 
William McKenzie is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is wmckenzie@dallasnews.com.