Battle over bilingual education

When Massachusetts voters go to the polls today, they will be asked to decide a question many feel is best left to educators: how best to teach non-English speaking students?

Under the current laws, the more than 35,000 non-English speaking students currently enrolled in Massachusetts public schools are allowed to take classes in their first language for three years while learning English. If passed, the measure would replace this format with one year of “sheltered immersion” after which students would be forced to take all classes in English with limited exceptions.

The measure is part of a nationwide attack on traditional bilingual education programs. The measure is financially backed by millionaire software developer Ron Unz, who has also worked to pass similar proposals in California and Arizona and put one on the ballot in Colorado. The measure’s teeth would come through the ability of parents to sue educators who ignore the measure.

Proponents of the measure claim that bilingual education has been a failed experiment that has left many students unable to speak English even after years in the programs. Opponents of the measure claim “sheltered immersion” is a simple and ineffective solution to a complex and nuanced problem that would leave non-English speaking students even further behind.

The measure would have little effect on local schools in the Williamstown area. Although it wouldn’t impact his school, Mount Greylock Regional School District Superintendent Mark Piechota is opposed to the measure because it would limit the options available to the schools it does affect. Like most schools in the area, Mount Greylock does not offer bilingual education because there are not enough students in need of it. Instead, students who need assistance becoming proficient in English are offered additional English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and support while still taking normal classes.

Cheryl Shanks, associate professor of Political Science and a specialist on immigration, is opposed to the measure, because she thinks that it asks voters to decide an empirical rather than political question. She feels that the question of how best to teach students English is one that is best left to experts on the subject. She also cites the need for flexibility as another reason why she opposes the measure, as students of different ages should be taught differently. Although she opposes the measure, she still thinks it is very important for all students to learn English so that they won’t be marginalized by society. “There are very good and very bad reasons to support the measure,” she said, citing latent racism as one of the bad reasons voters may support the measure but also acknowledging that many just want to enable foreign language students to speak English so they can be successful in society.

Gail Newman, professor of German and head of the Williams in New York teaching program, declined to give her own vote on the measure but said, “As a language teacher, I certainly feel that immersion programs in the target language is the most effective way for people to learn that language. But such programs must involve more than merely living in an atmosphere where the language is spoken; it must also involve significant actual instruction. It is not clear that the proposal guarantees that the state will fund instruction by trained ESL teachers for students who come into school without sufficient English, nor that it is genuinely committed to the education of those students.”

Catherine Szpunt ’03 is doing a two semester independent study on bilingual education, concentrating on the psychological impact of different bilingual education programs on the student. While she agrees with proponents of the measure that current bilingual education programs are very flawed, she does not see this as a reason to get rid of the programs. She points out that most of these bilingual programs are offered at extremely impoverished schools with few resources and teachers who are in many cases not even bilingual themselves.

Additionally, there are no set standards for bilingual teachers to turn to and nobody in charge of supervising these programs and making sure that they are run effectively. By solving these problems she believes that bilingual education can become much more successful at educating non-English speakers. “The answer is not just to take away these programs but to add,” she said, proposing additional after school programs to help students learn English.

While many of the experts are decidedly against the measure, polls show Massachusetts voters in favor of the measure by a two to one margin.