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Floundering in English
The Boston Globe, Editorial

THE CHALLENGE for the state Board of Education as it weighs regulations for the state's new English immersion law is to come up with guidelines that avoid the experience of 30 years ago. It was sink or swim then, and too many children sank. Moreover, even the most sensible regulations will be of little avail if the state does not supply more funding for materials and better training of both immersion teachers and mainstream teachers in schools with large numbers of children with limited English. Governor Romney's proposed $9 million for immersion kindergarten classes is just a start.

Voter-approved Question 2 deprives state and local officials of flexibility, one reason this page opposed it. Children under 10 can be waived from immersion and enroll in a transitional bilingual class with much instruction in the child's language only if the student first spends 30 days in immersion. There must also be physical or psychological reasons unrelated to language for opting out of immersion.

These same hurdles will be imposed if children want to enroll in one of the state's heretofore successful two-way bilingual classes, in which mainstream and language-minority students learn each other's tongue. The law is less strict about waivers for children over age 10, recognizing that they can have special difficulty mastering English.

With good teachers and good materials, immersion will probably succeed for many students, especially ones who begin in the earliest grades. But one of the reasons many voters were skeptical about the old form of bilingual education is that too many of the teachers lacked English ''fluency,'' the new standard required by Question 2. Unless there is a corps of good immersion teachers waiting in the wings, the state and districts will have to work hard to bring less-than-fluent bilingual teachers to that level by September.

The state must also invest in the professional development of mainstream teachers. If immersion works as envisioned, most students will need just one year of immersion and then go into mainstream classes. But it is a dirty secret of public education, here and elsewhere, that too many mainstream teachers have no training or sensitivity in working with students whose English is good enough to navigate at recess but weak in the classroom.

During his campaign, Romney wisely promised to eliminate an ill-advised provision of Question 2 that would give parents the right to sue teachers if parents felt they were not complying with the law. Now the governor is walking away from that promise, possibly because he worries that proposing any legislative changes to the law would invite legislators to make their own changes, such as preserving two-way bilingual. The governor and lawmakers should respect the will of the voters, but there are changes that would improve the law and reduce the chance of immersion chaos.

This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 2/28/2003.  Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.