Bilingual graduate rate near equal of Calif. program

by Ed Hayward
Friday, October 25, 2002

Last of three parts.

Massachusetts' transitional bilingual education programs graduate students into mainstream classrooms at about the same rate as California, where voters in 1998 approved a one-year English immersion program nearly identical to the one Bay State voters will decide in a Nov. 5 referendum, state statistics show.

Approximately 7.6 percent of the 36,000 students enrolled in Massachusetts' embattled bilingual education programs graduate each year into classrooms where instruction takes place entirely in English, according to Department of Education numbers. Last year, California reclassified 7.8 percent of its English learners as fluent in English. However, not all of those students were in bilingual education.

In all, 12.2 percent of Massachusetts' TBE students either leave the program or graduate each year. In 2001, the most recent year available, 2,719 completed TBE. Another 1,006 graduated high school and 677 withdrew from the program voluntarily, according to the statistics.

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll acknowledged, ``Bilingual education has not worked for a lot of kids and some do need immersion.'' But he said he does not support the measure sponsored by Californian Ron Unz.

``I'm not in favor of Question 2,'' said Driscoll, who this week made his first definitive statements against the ballot initiative that asks voters Nov. 5 to dismantle the state's 30-year-old bilingual education law.

He said a bilingual education reform law passed by Massachusetts lawmakers in July can fix programs now failing students while allowing innovations such as ``two-way'' bilingual programs to continue.

``The new law the Legislature passed and the governor signed is more conducive to meeting the needs of individual students,'' Driscoll said. ``The (Unz) referendum promises one method, whereas the Legislature's plan takes into account the needs of individual students.''

In addition, Driscoll argued Massachusetts is further ahead in its education reform program than California was in 1998.

Driscoll said MCAS has already put schools educating large numbers of poor, immigrant and limited English-proficient students under the public microscope. He said test data show the state is seeing positive changes in those schools.

``To say MCAS caused low scores is wrong. It wasn't as if those kids weren't performing poorly before,'' he said. ``We have some success stories. We had 1,000 more Hispanic kids take MCAS this past year than in 2001. Six hundred of them passed the English exam. That's 600 kids who are at the basic level in English who would not have been if it weren't for the pressure of the assessment program.''

The Massachusetts bilingual program is a fraction of the size of bilingual education in California, where approximately 30 percent - or 450,000 students - out of the 1.5 million children learning English in public schools were enrolled in bilingual programs prior to 1998.

That year, California voters decided to mandate immersion in English to speed language development in hopes of improving what was then a 7 percent rate of reclassification of students from English learners to English proficient.

Following the passage of Proposition 227, the reclassification rate peaked at 9.1 percent in 2001, although people on both sides of the bilingual debate question the validity of how the rate is calculated.

Unz said enrollment in California's bilingual programs is down 80 percent since 1998, with recalcitrant districts that maintained bilingual education actually helping him prove the programs are not effective.

He pointed to California test results that show students enrolled in bilingual programs scoring dramatically worse than English learners outside the programs.

``It's interesting because these districts that have insisted on keeping bilingual education have also provided test data that show the programs still don't work,'' said Unz.

Parents such as Carlos Rivera of Mission Hill would like to see Unz go back west. Rivera said making sure his daughter, Cynthia, receives language training in her native Spanish as well as English is a priority drawn out of pride in his native state.

``She's in the bilingual program because I'm very proud of the fact my family is Puerto Rican,'' said Rivera, speaking through interpreter Myriam Ortiz, an organizer with the Hyde Square Task Force. ``We don't want to let the kids forget that. This is a way to preserve our language and culture as well as to continue to study both languages.''

Rivera, with his desire that his daughter, a student at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, learn English and Spanish, is not alone among the parents who enroll 36,000 students each year in bilingual education programs.

But Question 2 would replace the parental choice he enjoys now with a law requiring English to become the language priority for all students across the state.

Lawmakers have long debated overhauling the state's 1972 bilingual law, which had been under constant fire for a lack of documented results. Until this past summer, the bilingual lobby was able to beat back any changes. In the face of Question 2, opponents relented and a new bilingual law was passed in July.

The so-called Unz initiative would dismantle the 30-year-old bilingual program mandated by state law - as well as the reform measure passed by legislators in July in an effort to head off the Unz referendum.

The new law requires districts to offer at least two programs for English learners, one of which can be transitional bilingual education. Time in the program would be capped at three years. In addition, student progress must be tracked quarterly. Teachers will undergo more training and waivers for uncertified teachers would be very limited.

``We have reformed bilingual education in Massachusetts. Give it a chance,'' said State Rep. Peter J. Larkin (D-Pittsfield), co-chairman of the Legislature's Education Committee.

Boston University professor Christine Rossell, who has spent years studying bilingual education inside and outside of Massachusetts, said English must be the language priority for schools.

``English is most important for anyone living in this country,'' said Rossell, a supporter of Question 2. ``After that, we're just guessing. What I'm certain about is that a child is better off being instructed in English language classes rather than in their native tongue if the goal is the child attaining the highest level of English mastery of which he or she is capable.''

Whether eliminating bilingual education or reforming it can simultaneously lift the academic performance of Hispanic students - the largest group within bilingual programs - remains difficult to predict, said one of the original authors of the 1972 bilingual law.

``I don't think bilingual education is the only cause of the underachievement of Latino students,'' said professor Charles Glenn. ``It has a lot to do with social class and questions about different cultural groups and different relationships with education. I don't think, if we abolish bilingual education, we'd suddenly see the achievement gap go away.''

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