March 10, 2010 2:01 PM
Bilingual education is just one of those issues.
It sparks debates.
It stumps lawmakers.
It challenges educators.
It simply has yet to be figured out.
And for a border region like ours, that is just downright scary.
Considering that the first instance of bilingual education in the United States is said to go back to the 1600s - when bilingual schools began offering subjects taught in English and Polish to serve the Polish immigrant commu-nity - it’s dumbfounding to see how little we’ve mastered the concept.
Yet, our modern-day system is not only struggling to get immigrant students to learn the English language, it hasn’t even committed itself to any one form of bilingual education since Congress first mandated it in 1968.
Since then, five different forms of bilingual education programs have been established:
Transitional bilingual education, in which teaching is done in a child’s native language, typically for no more than three years. The goal is to help students transition to mainstream, English-only classrooms as quickly as pos-sible, at the expense of a child’s native language. This is the most popular form.
Maintenance bilingual education, similar to a transitional program but offered to a student learning English for a longer period of time, up to six years. The child’s native language is not sacrificed.
Dual language immersion, in which half of the students are native speakers of English and half of the students are native speakers of a minority language such as Spanish. This program – noted for aiding the long-term per-formance of English learners – is gaining in popularity because not only are Native English speakers benefitting by learning a second language, English language learners are not segregated from their peers.
Sheltered English, focusing on teaching academics in just English throughout the day, based on physical gestures and visual cues. All this is done at the expense of the child’s native language.
Pullout ESL. Similar to the sheltered English program, but interpersonal communication skills are emphasized, as opposed to academic. Students in this program typically only spend about half of each school day in this setting.
Seeing how varied the programs are, even from campus to campus within a given school district, it’s no wonder we are still grappling with producing proficient English speakers.
Given that research says it takes four to seven years for students who have received instruction in their native language to master a new language, it certainly makes sense that many of our local children coming with no formal education from Mexico are struggling to learn English and pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge & Skills (TAKS).
Throw in loopholes in our state laws, and teachers and students certainly have their work cut out for them. The most glaring loophole, I’ve learned, is how state rules classify recent immigrants as exempt from taking the TAKS or receiving any linguistic accommodations when taking it.
Generally speaking, once a student is enrolled in a U.S. school for two years, they must take the TAKS like any other student, in English and with no modification for their language.
Forget that two full years don’t seem like enough time for a recent immigrant, in say the seventh grade, to be on par with the child who has been in U.S. schools since kindergarten.
Two years, according to state law, can include one week in the first grade and three months in the fourth grade. That means a child could’ve just been here for a total of three months and one week in two different school years, and spent all the other time in a Mexican school - or not in school at all - and still be considered a third-year stu-dent with no need for linguistic accommodations.
How’s that for a fair education system? Imagine the recent immigrant student who is also facing a learning dis-ability.
While many of our schools still do exceptionally well, how much of it as at the expense of students who simply drop out because they feel marginalized or that all the odds have been stacked against them?
You’re going to have those who say we don’t need bilingual education, and “dagummit, this is the United States, nothing should be done in any language but English.”
But the stark reality is that these children who drop out or graduate with only basic communication skills and limited academic ability are here to stay. They make up a country we love and we hope can continue to globally compete for generations to come - against countries, we must not forget, that have mastered their own bilingual education systems.
It’s time for our lawmakers and educational leaders to figure out ours.
Deborah Martinez grew up in Mission and worked for 10 years as a journalist and political press aide throughout Texas and the Northeast. She began teaching in the PSJA school district last year and is pursuing her masters’ degree in educational psychology at UTPA.