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Is a bilingual society a school mandate?

By Nancy Salvato
web posted February 6, 2006

Recently, Creole, Massachusetts State Representative Marie St. Fleur summarized the paramount predicament inherent 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." [1] Representative St. Fleur is absolutely correct in her assessment because, historically, bilingualism has not been a school directive. The question that must be answered at this juncture is whether or not it should be and how this is best accomplished in the individual schools.

No one would disagree that students from immigrant families should become fluent in the nation's dominant language, which is English. Many argue, however, that there is value in creating a multilingual citizenry. As a matter of fact, President Bush believes this is a matter of American security. He recently, "launched the National Security Language Initiative, designed to expand Americans' knowledge of critical foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi." [2] He realizes that it is in our best interest to have intelligence officers who can understand those who communicate in these languages. Certainly, it is of great value to understand Spanish, as well, because we are bordered by a Spanish speaking people and we must be able to understand each other, especially 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. According to Arizona State University's Jeff MacSwan, Associate Professor of Language and Literacy, "Decisions about whether to put students in bilingual or immersion programs are best made at the district level with parental involvement." [3] It is his finding that, "Good conscientious educators can succeed in either model." [4]

That being said, what is the best and most efficient way to accomplish the goal of learning English? There are a number of considerations which 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." [5] In other words, what works best for one English learner isn't necessarily what works best for all English learners. This is because immigrants arrive in this country with a wide range of skills and backgrounds.

In a speech to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, House Speaker Tom Craddick expressed concern that once a program is implemented, there must be ways to hold schools accountable for ensuring that English learners "are progressing toward English proficiency." [6] Additional problems result from not having enough bilingual teachers for English learners. A 2005 report by The Urban Institute concludes that in terms of resources, "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." [7] Don Soifer, of the Lexington Institute has found that ineffective bilingual programs can segregate students who are unable to exit the program. Another problem occurs when within these programs there is a greater emphasis on multicultural studies than teaching students to read and write in English. [8]

Good school districts have begun investigating proven ways to best educate students in learning English. In some cases, schools are considering dual language programs, which mix native English-speaking students with those learning the language. Students in these programs 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." [9]

Illinois' Wheeling Elementary School District 21 has begun investigating all the variables which must be considered before committing to dual language to replace any or all of their current bilingual education programs in Spanish, Russian and Polish. According to Rosemary Meyer, the director of bilingual and English as a second language education, "There are a lot of big questions to answer, mainly, can we do it and can we do it well." [10] According to studies, 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. [11] A huge consideration is the cost to implement the program.

IL District 54 uses four English/Spanish and one English/Japanese dual language program in five of its schools. The program is optional but there is a waiting list every year. 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," according to Terri McHugh, District 54 spokeswoman. [12] Most students remain in the program until high school.

In Texas, the State Board of Education wants to learn more 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." [13] To be fair, they want to hear from "Supporters of bilingual education from Texas and California," as well. [14]

Regardless of what method of instruction schools decide to implement, what must be considered are the needs of the particular students, the costs, and whether or not there are qualified teachers available to ensure that the program is working. Schools must be held accountable for providing adequate instruction in any subject. It is the administration's and the school board's responsibility to ensure that the necessary components for the success of any program are in place. Only then will the needs of all students be addressed.


1 Striking a Minor Chord

2 Learning Languages

3, 4, 6, 8, 13, 14 Bilingual classes to get second look

5 "ESL programs help remove language barriers", Bangor Daily News 27 December 2005.

7 Frazier, Cal and Tim Westerberg. "Closing the student achievement gap in Colo.", Denver Post.com 18 Dec 2005.

9, 10, 11, 12 Moffitt, Casey."Is dual better? District looks at language program", Pioneer Press Nov 2005

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006


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