Bilingualism Issue Rises Again ; Immigration Legislation Puts Fresh Attention on Teaching Methods

By Sara Miller Llana and Amanda Paulson writers of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Bilingualism Issue Rises Again ; Immigration Legislation Puts Fresh Attention on Teaching Methods


Sara Miller Llana and Amanda Paulson writers of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Mark Chesley's seventh-grade science students understand what a prokaryotic cell does to reproduce, but not how to explain it, Mr. Chesley urges them to use their hands to illustrate the verb "pinching." Later, he teaches them to pronounce "binary fission."

At Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Lynn, Mass., where student enrollment can ebb and flow with immigration patterns, lessons that might have taken Chesley a day to teach to native English speakers often span two or three days in the state's controversial Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) program. "This is the hardest job I've ever had," Chesley said after class recently.

Massachusetts is one of three states - along with California and Arizona - that did away with bilingual education several years ago. But a recent Boston Globe survey of state test results indicates the new program has largely failed in its goal: to quickly immerse students in English so they're ready to join regular classes after a year.

Now, increased attention to immigration on Capitol Hill, including an amendment in the recent Senate bill that would declare English the national language, is again putting focus a growing immigrant population. In schools, the issue has been primarily how to rapidly get non-English speakers - whose academic performance is measured under the No Child Left Behind law - up to speed in English- speaking classrooms.

But educators are divided about whether immersion or bilingual programs work best, and many are starting to focus on the quality of instruction rather than the type of program.

"It's a very interesting patchwork of situations in which there's all this state policy involvement in diametrically opposed directions," says Robert Slavin, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "This is so political, on both sides, that the evidence only enters in when it's used as a cudgel by either side."

The issue first became a lightning rod a decade ago in California, when some immigrant parents and others protested the fact that non-English-speaking students were kept separate and taught many subjects in their own languages - a method they felt kept these students from learning English as quickly as they should. A 1998 ballot initiative passed, largely eliminating bilingual education from public schools, and placing non-English speakers in English-immersion programs.

Arizona followed suit, and in 2002, Massachusetts became the third state to vote out bilingual education. Students who were once taught primarily in their native languages are now put in SEI classrooms where Spanish or Portuguese or other languages are used solely for clarification purposes.

But as educators analyze the results of the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment tests, which will be released to the public later this month, some doubt how well the new program is working.

The goal is to keep English learners separated from their peers for no more than a year. But in Lynn, where about 18 percent of students have limited English proficiency, the head of the district's language program says most elementary students stay in SEI classrooms for about two years. It can take longer for older students. …

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