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Tue Jun 13 14:57:37 UTC 2006

fmhult at dolphin.upenn.edu recommends this article from The Christian Science Monitor

Bilingualism issue rises again

Immigration legislation puts fresh attention on teaching methods.

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Byline:  Sara Miller Llana and Amanda Paulson Staff writers of The 
Date: 06/13/2006

(LYNN, MASS., AND CHICAGO)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 recently.
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 is working.
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 older students.
"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 
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 
"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 Ruiz, 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 
"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."
(c) Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor.  All rights reserved. 

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