Bilingual education a better choice than immersion
San Antonio Express-News

Special to the Express-News Jo Beth Jimerson

Legislators in Texas have arrived at a startling conclusion: Bilingual students in Texas public schools should learn to speak English. Not that this hasn't been the stated goal in Texas since the beginning of modern bilingual education in the '70s. The term the public will hear tossed about in coming months from legislators is "English immersion," and it's a term that is dangerously vague.

Should students learn English in American public schools? Yes. Does English immersion accomplish that goal quickly and cheaply? Yes like no other program! The conclusion immersion proponents want taxpayers to draw, then, is that non-English-speaking students should be taught in English immersion classrooms. That would be a flawed conclusion because the issue is not that simple, and the implications of immersion-only are far-reaching.

In short, English immersion-only is not the moral choice, not the pro-family choice, not the educationally sound choice and not the equitable choice. Properly funded bilingual education, by contrast, is all of these.

Bilingual education is the moral choice. Schools should never slam doors of opportunity in students' faces. For every child who graduates speaking only one language, employment and promotional opportunities, as well as opportunities for travel and cultural exchange, are limited. English learners may, with a good work ethic, keep close to native English speakers in early years of schooling, when pictures and hands-on tasks abound, but without home support in English, these children have difficulty achieving academically in middle school and high school. When children of poverty (as many, but not all, bilingual students in Texas are) have an opportunity to break that cycle, but are limited in higher education and in the competition for good jobs by their monolingualism and lack of academic excellence, schools perpetuate poverty, and that's a situation for which all of us eventually pay.

Bilingual education is the pro-family choice. What greater disservice to the family has public education done in the past century than to erase native language capacity from children to the point that many children today have difficulty communicating with their grandparents? Relationships among family generations are damaged when a family's native language is eradicated by schooling. Should this be the primary concern of schools? Some would argue that it is not. In a day when bullying, divorce, child neglect and abuse and violence in and out of schools gives evidence that our children need the family and the emotional health the family unit can give them, I respectfully disagree and argue that children need us to help them maintain all the positive intergenerational relationships they have.

Even if we were to focus only on academic achievement, however, properly funded, accountable bilingual education is the educational choice. Research consistently shows that, yes, children can learn "survival English" in one to three years. So children can give the impression in immersion programs of success early on. But when the content comes into play, those children far underperform because they don't comprehend the academic language necessary to compete. Immersion-only ignores this research and puts English learners at higher risk in their middle and high school years.

Properly funded bilingual education is the only equitable choice. The value of having more than one language is unquestioned. Why is it the best educational choice to take native English speakers and put them in classrooms from kindergarten on that value and instruct in two languages, but not the best to do the same for native Spanish-speaking students?

To do so is to say that we value adding a second language for English-speaking children, but for Spanish-speaking children (who have the gift of already coming with a "second language") the educational system in Texas wants to eradicate that language in the school environment, then ostensibly add it back in at the high school level to meet graduation requirements. Logic would dictate that schools take advantage of the fluency in Spanish and seek to add English not subtract Spanish to our children's repertoire.

The key is properly funded. Can bilingual programs in Texas be improved? Yes. I don't negate the need for strict accountability. English immersion-only is not only not the best way to go; long-term, it's a pretty sad and dangerous one.

Jimerson is principal of Bill Brown Elementary School in the Comal Independent School District.