Original URL: http://www.gazettenet.com/10302002/politics/1332.htm

Bilingual education debated
Daily Hampshire Gazzette. Oct. 30, 2002

By RYAN DAVIS, Staff Writer

Proponents and opponents of bilingual education squared off Tuesday in a debate on Question 2, the Nov. 5 ballot question that calls for an end to most bilingual programs in the state.

The debate, one of the few in the area to present both sides of the issue, drew more than 50 people to Town Hall.

"We felt the community needed to know that there were two sides to the debate," said debate moderator Eunice Torres, Amherst's interim director of human rights. The debate was sponsored by the Human Rights Commission because, Torres said, commissioners "noticed that only one side was being presented."

Amherst residents Doris Mundo, an activist for the Latino community and supporter of bilingual education, and Rosalie Porter, co-chairwoman of the English for the Children campaign, which is proposing an English immersion system for state schools, participated.

Mundo said replacing bilingual programs with "sheltered English immersion" classes does a disservice to children whose first language is not English, because it does not take individual differences in ability and background into account.

"Why in God's name are you going to use a cookie-cutter approach to pop all these kids in the same class?" she asked.

Porter, a former bilingual education teacher in Springfield who said the program there is a failure, claimed that there is no evidence that teaching non-native English speakers in their native language has any educational benefits. She argued that immersion is the best way to get children to learn English.

"Bilingual education must be ruled out," she said. "We've had 31 years to see that this program has not succeeded for children. We can't just change it a little bit."

She cited studies she has worked on in several states that she said showed children in immersion programs score higher on standardized English tests than those in bilingual programs. She also linked bilingual education to the low test scores of immigrant children.

"It puts children at a terrible disadvantage not to be given English skills at an early age," she said.

Mundo's central argument throughout the debate was that immersion programs focus on teaching English at the expense of other subjects, while bilingual programs teach English as well as other material.

"Our role in schools is to teach children and give them a passport to the future, it's not just solely about learning English," she said.

For example, she said "if I have mastery in Spanish and you are teaching a math lesson in Spanish, I am able to learn the concept," she said. "If you are teaching me math in a language I don't understand, I don't learn any concepts."

Mundo and Porter differed on their interpretation of statistics from California, where an English immersion plan similar to Question 2 was approved by voters in 1998.

Mundo said that only 10 percent of English learners in California were classified as proficient after participating in immersion programs because the programs are ineffective.

Porter said that the immersion programs have been shown to be highly effective and that only 10 percent of students were labeled proficient because schools get more state funding that way.

Another contentious issue was the feature in Question 2 that allows teachers to be sued and fired if they violate the law. Porter dismissed criticism of the provision as "scare tactics" and said that in California no teachers had been sued under a similar law.

Mundo was unconvinced, replying that "the bottom line is that under Question 2, any language other than English amounts to a back-alley crime that is punishable to the full extent of the law."

The crux of the debate was whether bilingual education could work at all. Mundo said she believes it is highly effective, though she admitted that some individual programs might work better than others.

"I don't want mediocre math programs or social studies programs either," she said. "If there's a mediocre bilingual program, fix it. Don't throw them all out, and don't sue the teachers."

Porter said bilingual education is "a crazy idea that I once believed in" and there is no way for it to be effective in teaching children.

"The problem is not funding, it's not teachers and it's not children," she said. "The problem is the program model itself."

Ryan Davis can be reached at rdavis@gazettenet.com.


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