Is a bilingual society a school mandate?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Feb 12 14:57:33 UTC 2006

>>From the Washington Times,

FORUM: Is a bilingual society a school mandate?
Published February 12, 2006

Recently, State Rep. Marie St. Fleur of Creole, Mass., summarized the
paramount predicament in just about all policy debate regarding Immersion
versus Bilingual Education:  "We need to redefine what we're trying to do.
It's not the school system's responsibility or obligation that every child
maintains fluency in their native tongue." Historically, bilingualism has
not been a school directive. The question is whether bilingualism should
be a school's mandate and how best to teach English Learners.

    No one would disagree with the proposition that all citizens should
become fluent in English. But there is value in a multilingual citizenry.
Launching, "the National Security Language Initiative, to expand
Americans' knowledge of critical foreign languages such as Arabic,
Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi," Mr. Bush realizes it is in our
interest to have intelligence officers who understand multiple languages.
Certainly, it is important to understand Spanish because we are bordered
by a Spanish-speaking people and must be able to understand each other if
we are to cooperate on matters of national interest.

    So, the argument isn't really about whether Bilingual or Immersion
education programs work better. Arizona State University's Jeff MacSwan,
associate professor of language and literacy, says: "Decisions about
whether to put students in bilingual or immersion programs are best made
at the district level with parental involvement." He has found that,
"Good, conscientious educators can succeed in either model."  That said,
what is the best and most efficient way to learn English? A number of
considerations must be addressed.

    According to Laura Wittmann, an ESL coordinator in Bangor, Maine:
"Determining whether students need ESL services and what type depends on a
number of factors, including their age, the amount of English they know,
their ability to read and write in their own language, and how well
they've done in school in their native country." What works best for one
English learner doesn't necessarily work best for all. Immigrants have a
wide range of skills and backgrounds.

    In a speech to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, House Speaker Tom
Craddick expressed concern that schools must be accountable for ensuring
English learners "are progressing toward English proficiency." Additional
problems result from lack of enough bilingual teachers for English
learners.  A 2005 report by The Urban Institute concluded, "The shortage
of teachers in High-LEP (limited English proficient) schools with
experience, adequate academic preparation, and appropriate credentials
poses the most significant problem for LEP students." The Lexington
Institute's Don Soife found ineffective bilingual programs can segregate
students unable to exit the program. Another problem arises when these
programs emphasize multicultural studies more than teaching students to
read and write in English.

    Good school districts investigate available alternatives for English
learners. In some cases, schools consider dual language programs, which
mix native English-speaking students with those learning the language. All
students learn a second language and a second culture. "Instruction is
given in both English and another language, so students in the program
learn the curriculum in two languages."  Illinois' Wheeling Elementary
School District 21 has begun investigating all variables before committing
to dual language to replace any or all of their current Spanish, Russian
and Polish bilingual education programs. Rosemary Meyer, director of
bilingual and English as a second language education, said: "There are a
lot of big questions to answer, mainly, can we do it and can we do it

    Studies indicate both groups of students benefit from dual language
programs. "The key is having an effective program. You can't just put it
in place and immediately see results," said Ellen Clark, School Board
president. Another consideration is program cost.  Illinois District 54
uses four English/Spanish and one English/Japanese dual language program
in its five schools. The program is optional but has a waiting list. There
is no need to transition "out of the dual language program, since all the
students are supposed to be learning the exact same material as their
peers," said Terri McHugh, District 54 spokeswoman. Most students remain
in the program until high school.

    In Texas, the State Board of Education wants to learn about Immersion
and "ways we as state policymakers can encourage school districts within
Texas to move into this model of successful instruction to enable
non-English speakers to close the achievement gap more effectively." They
want to hear from "Supporters of bilingual education from Texas and
California," as well.  Regardless of instructional method, major
considerations are the needs of the particular students, the costs and
whether qualified teachers are available to ensure program fidelity.

    Schools are accountable for adequate instruction in any subject.
Administrators and School Boards must ensure necessary components for the
program's success are in place. Only then will the needs of all students
be addressed.

    NANCY SALVATO President of The Basics Project, (
a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational project to promote
information on basic elements of public issues.
Copyright  2006 News World Communications

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