Like it or not, DISD trustee has a point
Dallas Morning News
February 10, 2006
Bilingual education works - and not just for English
Let's be honest. Most of us know squat about bilingual education, but we all seem to have an opinion, colored by what we read or hear around election time.
Who loses from what we don't know? The kids with the highest odds against them – the children of immigrants, most of them living in poverty and attending schools that don't know what to do with them. What's surprising is that the merits of bilingual education are so passionately debated when, across the board, the program has never been adequately staffed. Right here in Dallas, school board member Joe May proposed hiring qualified, college-educated undocumented immigrants to fill the 400 bilingual education teaching slots for next year.
I know, I know, that would violate federal law. But lost in all the shoot-from-the-hip criticism of "hiring criminals" for "a flawed program" is the bigger picture: our national and chronic shortage of bilingual teachers.
"When I first heard about bilingual education in 1980, I didn't get it," said Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and now a bilingual education guru. "Bilingual education has one of the most consistent results in all of educational research."
He's right. Of the numerous studies out there, the overwhelming majority is favorable toward bilingual education, when staffed with qualified teachers.
But, hijole, it's political. How else do you explain the U.S. Education Department's refusal last fall to release a long-awaited study examining existing data to determine whether bilingual education actually works? The department deemed the study flawed and never made it public. Could the reason be that the study's researchers concluded that bilingual education does help students pick up English?
Among Mexican immigrants, who come to the U.S. with some of the lowest educational levels of all groups, some children can't even read in their own language. How can we expect them to pick up English in a year – as immersion programs like those in California call for – and start testing soon after? Along the border, where a huge chunk of us were Spanish-dominant, bilingual education was the norm. Myelementary school principal, Benito Saenz, still says, "You only learn to read once. After that, it's a matter of learning to pronounce it in English."
Consider Texas, where last year more than 14 percent of students were in bilingual education or English as a Second Language programs. It's not such a stretch to conclude that these kids' future earning power will determine how comfortably tomorrow's retirees rest.
So isn't it in everyone's best interest that these children excel?
By now, the bilingual education debate should have progressed from whether it works to how we can make sure it works for all of our kids. Haven't we learned anything from Ricky Martin? These days, it's all about crossover. It's about marketability. English may be the language of opportunity, but speaking a second one often determines who gets the job.
In New York, educators are trying to figure out how they can tap into the Arab and Chinese immigrant populations to teach those much-in-demand languages in school. (The CIA and FBI could use the help, since they don't have enough folks to translate Arabic
At South Knoll Elementary in the College Station school district, students can enroll in a two-way dual language program where Spanish and English speakers teach each other. Programs like this are popping up across the country, and most have waiting lists.
Texas students especially could benefit from two-way dual programs, which in effect open up the Western Hemisphere, where half of the population speaks Spanish among almost 400 million people worldwide. With our biggest trading partner just south of the Rio Grande and Texas the highest exporting state, we would be shortsighted not to prepare our children to work with countries like Mexico, where Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft and IBM have found homes.
Or, as 8-year-old Chloe McEntarffer, a participant in a dual program, recently told The Oregonian newspaper, "When you don't know how to speak Spanish, it isn't cool. We know two languages. We can have friends that speak Spanish only or English only, because we can speak to everyone."
Macarena Hernández is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.