Sunday, August 16, 2015

Bring back bilingual education for Boston schools

This piece by the editorial board of the Boston Globe is encouraging of the new Boston School Superintendent, Tommy Chang, to lead and bring bilingual/dual language education back. Debates around bilingual education are always more issues of politics than evidence.  That is, they have to do more with concerns over national identity and a perceived loss of centrality for English-only speakers.  This perceived sense of a loss of centrality is only true if we draw the false conclusion that we are an ethnically and linguistically homogeneous nation.

Our family traveled throughout Italy last month and was so happy to come across so many bilinguals and polyglots.  As bilingual, Spanish-English speakers, my family and I were able to travel about with great ease.  Every now and then, one came across individuals that seemed annoyed with our inability to speak Italian, but on the whole, we found Europeans as very much willing to engage us.  They were interested in who we were as foreigners.  They were in fact interested in knowing that we were Mexican Americans from Texas—"Messico-Americanos," they called us.  So it all worked—Spanish, English, Google Translate, gestures, etc. and it was so pleasing to encounter folks on the other end happy to make sense of our questions and needs.  It was even playful on a number of occasions—which helped relieve the stress of not speaking "the language."  It was of course also advantageous to speak Spanish because of our shared linguistic roots with Italian as a sister Romance language (the others are French, Portugese, Latin, and Romanes).  There was some, but much less, overlap with English.

Evidence of the benefits of bilingual education exist in abundance.  Historically, once native language instruction began to be provided to children in Texas and throughout the Southwest, that is when dropout rates for Latino students began to really improve.  Boston and Massachusetts, generally, will discover this with their Latino demographic once they re-institute bilingual education.  This shift in policy and practice will not only affirm a progressive commitment to bilingualism and biliteracy, but the civil and human rights of these children to their languages, cultures, and identities will get honored.


Bring back bilingual education for Boston schools

When it comes to educating the surging immigrant population in Boston, many in educational and political circles ignore the evidence of failure all around them. The achievement gap for so-called English-language learners — students enrolled in school but without English proficiency — promises to haunt Boston for a generation unless the ineffective and highly unsuccessful English immersion mandate is reversed. The Boston Public Schools continue to watch these students fall through the cracks. Their dropout rates are consistently higher, and they have among the lowest MCAS scores in the city. Saving more of these students from a life without meaningful educational achievement stands as one of the signal challenges for new superintendent Tommy Chang.
Year after year, a legislative proposal to bring back other language acquisition programs such as bilingual education, and drop the “one size fits all” approach, goes nowhere on Beacon Hill. But Chang brings a fresh perspective, and even hope. He has experience dealing with English-only mandates, coming from a state with similar restrictions on English learning. In California, the number of students who have not been able to become proficient in English for six or more years has increased dramatically (giving birth to a new classification: “long-term English learners”). Study after study has dismissed the longstanding view that many parents and policy makers still hold: that English-language learners will acquire proficiency faster if they’re totally immersed in the language. For example, a recent study found that native Spanish-speaking students enrolled in the Houston school district have more success learning English when they’re enrolled in a two-way dual-language program.
That success stems from the benefits of learning in two languages. As they learn English, students also need to learn other grade-appropriate subjects in their native language. When lessons in, say, math or biology, are taught in English only, students just learning the language often absorb the content more slowly. In the long term, that contributes to the achievement gap.
In tackling the immigrant-language challenge, Chang means business. He brought from the Los Angeles district two officials who will oversee English instruction at the Boston schools: Dr. Frances Esparza will be assistant superintendent at the Office of English Learners, and Dr. Karla Estrada, who as deputy superintendent of student services will be in charge of that office.
Chang understands the need to expand dual-language program opportunities in Boston. More important, he can be a powerful advocate to fix a failed policy that has hindered the educational progress of thousands of immigrants at the public schools. Chang, himself an English-language learner, understands better than anyone the challenges of servicing that population. The new Boston school superintendent should use his voice and his own compelling personal story to galvanize public support to bring bilingual education back to Massachusetts. By doing so, he can help save the educational futures of thousands of Boston public school students.

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