I have filed legislation that will reform bilingual education in Massachusetts because statistic after statistic, fact after fact, clearly demonstrates the inability of our current system to meet the needs of today’s students. Our reliance on the current format is a mistake of epic proportions and we, as a government and as a society, have an obligation to correct a system that has done such a grave disservice to the very students it was intended to help.
By secluding students for four, five, six and even seven years away from mainstream classes, the bilingual system has denied these kids access to the English language. In fact, today’s bilingual students graduate to mainstream English classes at a dismal 10 percent annual rate, which means a failure rate of 90 percent. Contrary to bilingual advocates, who gaze upon English as a privilege, I consider learning English to be a right that minority and immigrant children deserve. We must guarantee this right as quickly and effectively as possible.
The problem is quite simple: Our students are not learning English because they are not taught in English. Dating back to the program’s inception, the purpose of bilingual education has unequivocally been to teach children English using their native tongue only for instructional purposes. This idea has evolved into a system where bilingual education teachers are not required to be fluent in English and many teach only in their native languages. Their students are no longer afforded their right to learn English and ultimately to graduate to mainstream classes. Only by requiring teacher certification and fluency in the English language can we guarantee the same opportunities available to regular education students.
Why anyone would fight to keep students in a seemingly endless cycle of failure and segregation is beyond reason. When 58 percent of our eligible limited English proficiency (LEP) third-graders are excused from taking the Iowa Reading Test by their own teachers (up from 42 percent the year before) because they can’t understand English, we know that a serious problem exists. And recent MCAS testing results paint a clear picture of an LEP student population that is grossly underserved by our schools: 48 percent of LEP eighth-grade students failed English language arts, 76 percent failed mathematics, 81 percent failed science and technology, and 84 percent failed history.
With over 45,000 bilingual education students in the state–an increase of 10,000 in the last 10 years–we must reform this process now, before we are faced with a rising population of students who are unnecessarily retained. My bill will eliminate the current structure–which assumes three years in bilingual education before transfer to mainstream classrooms, but often extends far longer–and replace it with a proven method of teaching the English language: structured immersion. Almost every European country requires structured immersion for their non-native speakers. This format requires that a student be taught only in English for one full year, with their native language used rarely for instructional purposes, after which they can immediately graduate to mainstream classes or be retained, at the parent’s request, for further English-language instruction. And while I will continue to defend efforts aimed at teaching fluency in two or more languages, we cannot call these students truly bilingual until they are fluent in English.
Luckily, we–legislators, community leaders, and parents alike–are fortunate to have a working example right here in the United States of how our system could succeed if we focus on teaching English to these students. In California, limited English proficiency students who were transferred to structured immersion classes as a result of Proposition 227 scored 20 percent, 50 percent, and in some cases 100 percent higher than their peers who remained in bilingual-education classes. From 1998 to 2000, California English learners in the elementary grades most affected by the changed curriculum (second through sixth grade) raised their mean percentile scores by 35 percent in reading, 43 percent in mathematics, 32 percent in language, and 44 percent in spelling, with an average increase of 39 percent across all subjects. Those school districts that sought waivers from the new regulations saw their collective scores actually go down from previous years.
The citizens of California decided to make a widespread change because they were addressing a widespread problem. And with similar efforts being made in Arizona, Colorado, and New York, the move to reform bilingual education continues to gather strength. It is time that parents here demanded the most effective education possible for their children, and time for legislators to ensure it.In order to most accurately reflect the wishes of school officials, parents, and students, I am prepared to bring the question of adopting the structured immersion format to the citizens of the Commonwealth in a referendum vote. There are some issues far too important to be settled with mere political discourse and endless sound bites, but must be decided by the very people they affect. To that end, I have been in close contact with Ron Unz and organizers like him who have successfully led ballot questions across the country to reform bilingual education. While it is my sincere hope that the Legislature finally accepts the monumental responsibility of creating and sustaining a system that will guarantee access to the English language, I am wholly committed to bringing this issue to the people and letting them decide for themselves how to aid our bilingual education students.
If the existing system were successful, I would support it with every ounce of energy that I have. But it isn’t. It is incumbent upon us as a state government and as citizens of the Commonwealth to directly address this problem, not prop up a failing system. It is our responsibility to teach English to those children that need it. That will give them the greatest tool they could have to succeed in a competitive world. To neglect this duty is to fail the children of the Commonwealth.
Guy W. Glodis is a Democratic state senator from Worcester.