There was a thoughtful column about bilingual education in Sunday's Seattle Times by syndicated columnist, Esther Cepeda. From her column:
Education policy has rarely garnered our collective attention as it does now.
One aspect that needs more attention, though, is the question of how best to educate students whose native language is not English. It's a politically charged topic that rarely focuses on research and instead pits those who don't want to spend resources on instructing children in any language other than English against those who believe bilingual education is a civil right.
Okay so let's stop there because there are a couple of issues. One, should the American public education system be educating children in their native language and two, is it a civil rights issue?
Ms. Cepeda argues that it hurts the whole educational system's performance if non-native speakers struggle because of language barriers.
The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics says that between 1979 and 2008, the number of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 3.8 million to 10.9 million, or from 9 percent to 21 percent of the population in this age range.
Right now each state individually decides how to educate English-language learners based on the tenets of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which sought to ensure a quality education for students with limited English skills. Programs range from those in which students are fully immersed in English-language classrooms with various "English as a second language" programs, to classrooms where a student is taught completely in his or her native language with additional English-language instruction for an eventual transition to English-only classrooms.
Now, of course, in any urban area you can have many languages. SPS provides services in many languages. What becomes a more defining point is when you have a concentration of one language like Spanish in states like Texas, Arizona and California.
She points out that if there is a critical mass of students speaking one language, they tend to get placed in a native-speaker classroom while a single student with a non-English language might be immersed in an English-speaking classroom.
I recently attended a bilingual and dual-language education conference where Diane August of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics shocked participants by citing several recent studies to verify anecdotal evidence that goes back generations: Preschoolers who are immersed in English without extensive native-language support learn English as well as those in bilingual or other native-language-supported classroom.
She does point out that this is probably worthwhile for younger students but they have no verifiable data for middle and high school students. (I would also point out that there are students who not only are immigrants but may have not had much formal schooling. That is another whole challenge and one that our BOC - Bilingual Orientation Centers - were created for.)
One thing to tease out from this article is embracing the varied cultures that live within our borders while hoping that immigrants learn English and appreciate their new country. Foreigners came here and adopted U.S. culture and language in order to assimilate. For example, when my husband's uncles immigrated from Italy, they all took the American version of their names (Raffaele became Ralph). They wanted to fit in, not stand out. Now, of course, they lived in the Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn so it's not like they didn't stick with what they knew. But they did know if they wanted to be successful, it was English and assimilation.
My own experience growing up on the Arizona-Mexico border showed me that graduated immersion might be one way to go. Meaning, one school year in a non-native-speaking class but taking PE with native speakers. After that, it's immersion. I think that long-term bilingual ed may be a crutch and we want to get larger numbers of students up-to-speed, they need to be with native speakers. Of course, it also may mean we need more teachers who speak Spanish and Chinese (the top 2 non-native languages in the U.S.).
This, of course, is not just an education issue. Immigration reform seems to be quite important to many conservatives but just what that looks like and how it will play out in our schools is hard to predict.