The Bilingual Debate: Transitional Classrooms

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 29 16:01:37 UTC 2008

September 28, 2008,  7:57 pm
The Bilingual Debate: Transitional Classrooms
By Bruce Fuller

In this installment of Education Watch, Bruce Fuller and Lance T.
Izumi discuss the candidates' positions on bilingual education. Go to
Mr. Izumi's post.
Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy at the
University of California at Berkeley. (Full biography.)

Despite his own family history — or perhaps inspired by it — Barack
Obama is pitching a middle ground when it comes to bilingual
education. He rejects the English-only thrust of nativist
conservatives, while distancing himself from advocates of cultural
preservation. Mr. Obama favors "transitional bilingual education,"
meaning that he believes teachers should transition children to
English as quickly as possible, building-up from students' knowledge
of their native language. That is, youngsters should become literate
in two languages, not one. Research inside schools lends support to
his approach, assuming that a new generation of teachers can be
prepared to serve the nation's growing number of Asian and Hispanic
children who enter school not speaking English. The nation's economic
future depends especially on the human capital of young Hispanics. By
2025, one in four students nationwide will be of Hispanic heritage.

The Bush administration has made little progress in closing huge gaps
in achievement levels of Hispanic versus (non-Hispanic) white
children. This means a less productive labor force in coming decades,
the very workers that must help cover our Social Security checks and
health care costs.
For Hispanic parents, the No. 1 issue in the presidential race is
education. They will tilt swing states, like Colorado, Florida, New
Mexico and Virginia, toward the Democratic or Republican column.
One-third of Hispanics registered as independents, often small
business owners who depend on young literate employees, favor John

My Education Watch correspondent, Lance Izumi, prefers English
immersion. But millions of young children enter school without
grasping much English, and No Child Left Behind now humiliates them by
setting on their desk a standardized exam that can't be deciphered.
These naïve policies only stigmatize what young children know,
undercut their confidence in the classroom, and disempower parents.
Transitional classrooms, as Mr. Obama puts forward, offer a pragmatic
alternative. A generation of research details that it's the richness
of teacher's verbalizations that sparks the child's growth in oral
language, and then reading proficiency. An overnight shift to English
can shake the child's underlying confidence to communicate and stifle
literacy growth in either language.

Even a Bush administration review of controlled classroom experiments
— seeking to identify what works in language teaching — found stronger
achievement gains for students enrolled in quality bilingual programs,
compared with English-immersion classrooms. Yet a skilled bilingual
teacher is crucial, one who understands the knowledge and social norms
that children acquire at home, and how to build from the first
language to advance rich oral language and then written literacy. It's
a no-brainer for students attending schools in Europe and East Asia.
Mr. Obama's "Latino Blueprint for Change" promises to "close the
achievement gap by investing in proven interventions." Indeed the
evidence points to other beneficial programs for Hispanic children,
like expanding quality preschools and recruiting a new generation of
bilingual teachers.
Mr. Obama's promised "army of new teachers" could spur demand for
Hispanic college graduates — if more than half actually graduated from
dreary urban high schools. Many teenagers must exit to backstop their
family's economic survival.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain has little to say to Hispanic parents and all
Americans who are eager to nurture a more productive workforce. He
barely mentioned education reform in a recent speech before the League
of United Latin American Citizens, saying only that "we need to
shake-up failed school bureaucracies with competition." The notion of
individuals competing for scarce places in private schools remains
foreign to most Hispanic communities, held together by pro-family
values and economic cooperation.

Money matters will likely dominate the candidates' remaining stump
speeches during the final weeks of this marathon campaign. Barack
Obama has much to gain by accenting his plan for lifting Hispanic
achievement. Amplifying this message might spark robust voter turnout
by a pivotal constituency. If elected, his press for a more integrated
and literate workforce will benefit us all.
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