As only might be expected, the forward motion of our “English” initiative in Massachusetts—and the 100,000 signatures that our supporters so quickly gathered—has awoken that state’s political establishment from its thirty-year near slumber on the subject of bilingual education.
But faced with the rising evidence of the disastrous failure of that entrenched system of (mostly) Spanish-almost-only instruction and the strong indications that the voters intend to scrap it, Massachusetts politicians have opted for the Solomonic solution of slicing this disputed baby— and the educations of some 40,000 immigrant students—in half. And unfortunately for them, educations suffer from such treatment as much as do babies.
All the academic theorists who developed the basis for modern “transitional” bilingual education agree without reservation that such a program requires at least five to seven years to be effective. Anything sort of that term is a likely educational disaster, dumping students out to mainstream classes before they are ready, for almost certain failure.
Yet faced with the apparent popular support for our proposed measure of “intensive English immersion” for immigrant students from the first day they enroll in school, nervous Bay State politicians have seemingly opted for what they perceive as a safe “compromise,” keeping the program while abandoning its theoretical basis.
First, Republican Acting Gov. Jane Swift called in her State-of-the-State Address for a mandatory two- year limit on bilingual education enrollment. Now, the Democratic co-Chairs of the Education Committee in the Massachusetts House of Representatives have done exactly the same, proposing a two-year limit, while simultaneously *boosting* the actual funding for those failed programs by $12 million, a considerable sum in a medium-sized state facing difficult fiscal challenges.
Since the two year figure was entirely pulled out of a political hat, being based on no research or curriculum development work by anyone in any educational field, the details are equally arbitrary. As a consequence, the supporters of the Swift proposal and that of the Democratic legislators in this partisan gubernatorial election year are strongly denouncing each other’s provisions, while our own supporters—including probably a landslide majority of the Bay State’s actual voters—watch in amusement from the sidelines. There are also reports that two additional bilingual education reform measures, separately authored by Democratic State Representatives Antonio Cabral and Jared Barrios, are also scheduled to soon enter the ring in this legislative slugfest.
Our response to all these conflicting—and sharply contradictory—“compromises” is a simple one. First, since nearly all observers now admit the completely disastrous nature of the status quo, why had they not focused more attention on this issue during the previous thirty-one years? And second, if these legislators are so absolutely convinced that every academic supporter of bilingual education is utterly and completely wrong, and that the logical basis for the program should be scrapped, why are they so eager to avoid any possibility of actually dismantling the program itself?
Unfortunately, unlike King Solomon, they currently seem quite sincere in their desires to slice in two the educational lives of some 40,000 immigrant students in Massachusetts schools. Fortunately, I expect the voters who elected them to take a different view.
- Bilingual ed plan offered by legislators
Boston Globe,Wednesday, January 30, 2002