Sen. Glodis writes that he considers learning English a right of English-language learners–a right they are entitled to have redeemed as quickly and effectively as possible. I fully endorse and adopt this principle as a starting point for a constructive discussion of transitional bilingual education. I would add to this that all children have the right to learn core curriculum material at the appropriate grade and age level.

To support his proposition that the right to learn English is best guaranteed by English-language immersion, the senator looks to California. But California’s results prove that students in well-implemented bilingual education programs can and do outperform English-language learners in English-immersion programs. In its analysis comparing schools with bilingual instruction to schools with English immersion highlighted by English-only proponents, Californians Together, an advocacy group, reported that bilingual-program students “met or exceeded the performance of all students at the schools used for comparison at most grades and in both reading and mathematics.”

Sen. Glodis also implies that bilingual education is the cause of a high dropout rate for Latinos. But most Latino students are not in transitional bilingual education. We must conclude that many who drop out are in mainstream (English only) classes.

The senator goes on to paint a distorted picture of bi-lingual-education students and MCAS. A problematic exam at best, given in English, MCAS produces misleading statistic after misleading statistic about English-language learners, making it a useless assessment of students and schools. MCAS only tests knowledge of academic English skills students at grade level, not progress in English as a second-language skill. Furthermore, because MCAS is given in grade level English, it is a poor tool to test the core curriculum knowledge of English-language learners.

The overwhelming majority of transitional bilingual education students–80 percent in fact–transition into mainstream (English only) classes within three years. Of those who stay beyond the three-year statutory timeframe, many have special education needs or had little or no formal education before coming to the United States. From the outset, bilingual education students are integrated into mainstream music, art, and physical education classes, which do not demand a high level of English proficiency. As a student’s English improves, he or she is transitioned into mainstream classes taught in English, joining English-speaking peers of the same age and grade level. By the second or third year, for example, most attend computer science, math, or chemistry classes with English-speaking classmates.

We all want English-language learners to learn English, but we also want students to learn core curriculum at an appropriate age and grade level. By scholastically challenging a child in their native language, you improve that child’s ability to master English. While transitional bilingual education students are learning the standard curriculum in their native language, they are also taking English-as-a-second-language classes and participating in other classes with English-speaking peers. English-language instruction is essential for successful bilingual education programs.

Turning the clock back to the failed English immersion of 30 years ago is not the way to reform bilingual education. English immersion segregates English-language learners according to their English proficiency level rather than age and grade level. It delays meaningful acquisition of the standard curriculum, with the result that children fall behind academically. English immersion provides no way for English-language learners to catch up–a clear violation of a child’s right to learn the curriculum that is tested by MCAS. We must never forget that, in the past, this sink-or-swim approach caused a disastrous 80 percent to 90 percent dropout rate for English-language learners–which is why it was replaced by transitional bilingual education.

How do we ensure that Massachusetts is fulfilling its responsibility to English-language learners? The answer is comprehensive and meaningful reform, not English immersion.

Transitional bilingual programs will never meet their responsibility to English-language learners unless we make the same demands of their students, parents, school districts, and the Department of Education as we do of mainstream students, parents, schools, and DOE under the Education Reform Act of 1993. This is why I am working with a broad-based coalition to develop a comprehensive reform of bilingual education to mirror this landmark law.

The Education Reform Act established goals to improve the quality of education for all children. To ensure that the Commonwealth is fulfilling its responsibility to all children, transitional bilingual education must mirror this reform. Requiring schools to educate in a child’s native language so these children can learn core curriculum and English is an important step. But it is not enough.

The changes we seek go directly to improving the quality of education for English-language learners. Among other changes, we must require school districts to implement curriculum frameworks as outlined under the 1993 reform act, setting high standards and accountability for transitional bilingual education students, including the use of alternative assessment instruments to measure student performance annually. We must require districts to have certified bilingual directors and teachers. And DOE must establish policies and standards that make sure there are a sufficient number of qualified bilingual education teachers to meet student needs. We want every bilingual education student to meet the higher standards established under the Education Reform Act .

English immersion failed 30 years ago. Transitional bilingual education is a sound and cost-effective means of educating children who come to school not knowing English to succeed academically in all-English classrooms. Reforming transitional bilingual education to mirror the higher standards and accountability now set for all other classrooms will ensure that Massachusetts succeeds in fulfilling its responsibility to all children, especially those who go to school wanting to learn English.

Antonio F.D. Cabral is a Democratic state representative from New Bedford.

It’s Time For Choice in Bilingual Education

By Jarrett T. Barrios
Spring 2001

The facts speak for themselves, all right. The proposal advanced by Sen. Glodis and bankrolled by California millionaire-cum-conservative crusader Ron Unz conspires to turn upside down the established system of bilingual education in Massachusetts. The Glodis-Unz proposal mandates the state provide the same one-year English-language immersion curriculum for all children, regardless of their age, their educational background, special needs or circumstances. It is one-size-fits-all.

Sen. Glodis wants to do away with the current, flawed system, but he makes the same fundamental mistake. By permitting only one official bilingual curriculum, he misses an extraordinary opportunity to harness public frustration with a failing system and thereby to open up the law to diverse forms of bilingual education. These varied alternatives to the status quo arise out of a simple fact ignored by Sen. Glodis: In life, one size rarely fits all.

These alternatives have made great strides across the country and thrive in Massachusetts in the shadow of the current law. One example is found in the two-way immersion programs in Framingham, Salem, Cambridge, and Boston that integrate English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students (and Portuguese, in the case of Cambridge) into classes where all children are immersed in both languages. MCAS scores for these children far surpass those of students in other forms of bilingual education.

Another example is structured immersion that allows for 80 percent English immersion but, unlike the Glodis-Unz version, retains 20 percent native language instruction for the child. One such program is the Ni hao Chinese language program at the King School in Cambridge. Significantly, this model recognizes the child’s native language not as a deficit but as a strength, retaining it as part of a world language curriculum for English-speaking children. All children can and, under the Education Reform Act of 1993, must learn proficiency in a second language by the time they graduate (though that requirement has not yet been implemented). Structured immersion is a means to seamlessly transition non-English-speaking children into a supportive world language curriculum for all.

Indeed, these are just two of several brands of bilingual education that remain unsanctioned in Massachusetts, despite their proliferation here and elsewhere. Their success points to a path out of the ideological morass that is sinking both the Commonwealth’s current system and its critics–and toward a thoughtful program that focuses on the educational needs of children and not the political needs of politicians. This path rests on the fundamental value of choices for children–children whose individual needs are not met by a one-size-fits-all solution, whether it is the current law or English-language immersion.

Since 1971, transitional bilingual education has been the only legal form of bilingual education. But since the beginning, numerous school districts resisted full implementation of this law. One example is the lamentable concession by the Department of Education–which does not even have a full-time staff person working to coordinate, oversee, or support school districts with bilingual education–to readily grant waivers for hiring bilingual education teachers who are not certified to teach, and whose English may not be that strong.

Like the current law, the Glodis-Unz one-size-fits-all approach turns its back on the past 30 years of academic research on children’s language acquisition, and on the past 30 years of practical classroom experience. Glodis-Unz would return children to the pre-1971 days when schools threw newcomer children into standard classrooms as quickly as possible, regardless of their age, grade, or previous educational attainment.

Sen. Glodis relies on the manufacture of memory (our parents learned English without bilingual programs. . .) that ignores higher dropout rates and lower educational expectations held for previous generations of immigrant children, who were destined for factories and other blue-collar jobs. He also relies on the myth that all children learn quickly when immersed in a language. While younger children do learn quickly, older children tend to stumble and fall in rapid-immersion programs. One size does not fit all children of different ages and backgrounds.

Sure, the kindergarten child who soaks up new language like a sponge will derive great benefit from immersion. But what about the 14-year-old coming to the United States from a war-torn country, with no previous schooling or even basic literacy in her own language, who is immersed into a one-year, sink-or-swim English program? Under this plan, she must become fluent in English–fluent enough to succeed in standard classrooms with no additional language or learning supports–after just one year. For her, the “pro-immigrant” plan of Sen. Glodis portends disaster.

Of course, the Glodis-Unz bill proposes an “opt-out” for those supposedly exceptional cases where a child does not thrive in her one year of shock therapy. It does not explain what, if anything, a school district is obligated to provide the child who has opted out. Rather, it provides only vague encouragement to districts to offer “bilingual education techniques,” and then only where 20 children in a school have independently opted out.

The Glodis-Unz proposal calls itself pro-immigrant and pro-minority, but proffers an immersion program that takes away the only legal leverage immigrant parents have to make sure that reluctant, under-resourced, or unfriendly school districts give their children a quality education. It nostalgically recalls a better age where it all just somehow worked.

This is the sort of nostalgia we do not need. Children need to learn beautiful English–in the way that’s effective for them. They do not need to be dropped into classes where they will fail quietly, or drop out quickly.

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Ultimately, the ideological predispositions of Sen. Glodis and Unz force their hand. They ignore these possibilities of real improvement because they are too enamored of throwing grenades in some imagined “culture war.” Their cries of concern for immigrant children ring hollow and their sobs yield only crocodile tears.

Jarrett T. Barrios is a Democratic state representative from Cambridge.