Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dual Language Programs Succeed

by Lupe Ramos, Austin Am Statesman 12/24/2010

From recent news coverage and editorials and the public response to them it's clear that some members of the community don't understand what dual-language programs are, much less how dual-language and other bilingual programs in Texas work.

I feel the need to speak up not only as a representative of the Austin Area Association for Bilingual Education, which is working with Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to implement dual-language in the Austin school district, but also as a veteran practitioner of dual-language instruction. I've spent my entire 32-year teaching career with the Austin school district, the first two years in general education and the last 30 in the bilingual program.

As in most other districts in Texas, the most widely used bilingual education model in AISD is the transitional program. Non-English speakers begin learning English at the same time they're learning their first language. Once they're deemed proficient in English, they're placed in a regular class, leaving their first language behind as a means of instruction. While it may sound constructive, there's plenty of evidence confirming the opposite. Just take a look at the test scores and dropout rates of language minority students.

Dual-language programs are an increasingly favored alternative to the transitional approach to bilingual education. In a dual-language classroom, students learn English and their first language simultaneously, but the delivery of language instruction is very specific with respect to time and subject area. Depending on the precise program design of a particular dual-language classroom, the teacher may teach one day in English and the next day in Spanish, English in the morning and Spanish in the afternoon, or math in Spanish and science in English. The model dictates to the teacher how long to instruct in each language and which language to use to teach each subject.

The most significant differences between the dual-language and transitional models are:

1. Dual-language maintains the student's first language as a tool of instruction instead of phasing it out.

2. The dual-language program benefits non-English speakers as well as native English speakers wanting to learn a second language; the transitional program serves non-native English speakers only.

Despite the contrasts, it isn't at all unusual in any given school with a bilingual education program to find dual-language classrooms next to classrooms using the transitional model.

Dual-language is a form of bilingual education, not a program in and of itself. The suggestion that dual-language is some sort of experiment being rolled out by AISD to supplement or support the "regular" bilingual program is wrong. Both dual-language and transitional programs are used in every corner of the state, under fiscal and programmatic supervision by the Texas Education Agency. Bilingual programs must meet federal standards under the No Child Left Behind legislation and state requirements outlined in Title 19, Chapter 89, Subchapter BB of the Texas Administrative Code. Dual-language is no exception.

And contrary to some reports, dual-language is not a detached, after-the-fact initiative competing against the superintendent's Strategic Plan 2010-2015. It already was a formal component when the plan was considered and approved by the board of trustees on Dec. 14.

Cost is a legitimate concern, but even assuming the two models operate side by side, dual-language instruction in the Austin school district shouldn't entail long-term or recurring expenses. There will be initial costs for consultants to train the coordinators, teachers and other district personnel in dual-language methodology, but once the program is established, the functions performed by the consultants are customarily assumed in-house, by trained personnel and teachers in model classrooms.

In the long run, replacing the transitional design with a research-based dual-language program will benefit the Austin community. The program's primary purpose is to close the achievement gap between non-English speakers and their counterparts, ultimately helping to improve chronically failing schools, but it's also another way to provide an enrichment program for English-speaking students who wish to learn a second language. With dual-language programs, everyone wins.

Ramos is president of the Austin Area Association for Bilingual Education and a first-grade dual-language teacher at Perez Elementary School.

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