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Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jun 13 13:34:34 UTC 2006

>>From the Christian Science Monitor,  June 13, 2006 edition -

Bilingualism issue rises again.
Immigration legislation puts fresh attention on teaching methods.

By Sara Miller Llana and Amanda Paulson | Staff writers of The Christian
Science Monitor


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 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
Ruz, 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."

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