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
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
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
"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."