Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/288/metro/Immersed_in_debate+.shtml

Immersed in debate
As vote nears, some focus on issue of bilingual education teachers

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 10/15/2002

Cristina Lobato - a bilingual education teacher who speaks four languages and
has a master's degree in applied linguistics - challenges Ron Unz, the
millionaire bankrolling a ballot initiative to scrap bilingual education in
Massachusetts, to teach her Brockton students.

Many of them, she says,
arrive in the United States
knowing no English.
''These are kids with little
schooling ... and you have
one year to teach them
regular conversational
English ... but you have to
teach them academic
English in all the different
content areas, like math,
science, social studies. If
Ron Unz could do that, I'd
like to see him modeling
that for me.''

But Unz and his supporters return the fire, saying bilingual education teachers are
the ones failing students. A shortage of qualified teachers has meant many of the
state's bilingual classrooms are staffed by those whose own command of English is
sketchy, or who haven't been adequately trained to teach limited-English students.

''I think the general level of instruction is just not as strong as the level of instruction
in mainstream English classrooms,'' said Lincoln Tamayo, a former principal of
Chelsea High School and the chairman of Unz's local campaign. ''Limited-English
proficient students have the lowest MCAS scores in Massachusetts. But that
includes mathematics - and in math, the MCAS is provided in Spanish.''

At few times in recent memory has the spotlight fallen so squarely on
Massachusetts' bilingual education teachers, responsible for teaching English to
39,000 students. On Nov. 5, Question 2 will ask voters whether the state's
31-year-old effort at bilingual education should be replaced with one year of
English immersion classes, with exceptions for older or disabled students.

School districts big and small report that bilingual education positions are among
the toughest slots to fill because of a dearth of qualified teachers, or a lack of strong
English skills among some of them. Bilingual teachers must have both a standard
teaching certificate and an additional one in bilingual education, and pass the state
test for teachers. Last year, the state granted 118 waivers to bilingual teachers who
didn't meet those requirements; so far this school year, 34 waivers have been

Few school systems have decided how to prepare their bilingual teachers to teach
immersion if Question 2 passes - or how to train their regular-education teachers to
deal with students whose familiarity with English is limited and who could join their
classes after a year of immersion. A majority of teachers nationwide, about 60
percent, reported feeling ''somewhat'' or ''moderately'' well-trained to teach
non-English speakers, according to a recent survey by the US Department of

''It's going to depend an awful lot on how seriously local districts handle [Question
2],'' said Charles L. Glenn, a Boston University education professor who was one
of the authors of the Commonwealth's first bilingual education law in 1971.
''Whether they do it in a way that is grudging or positive, and whether they can put
together effective training for folks, will make a difference.''

Currently, traditional bilingual education teaches students in their native languages
for up to three years before moving them into all-English courses. Proponents say it
takes time for students to gain a command of English - not just reading street signs,
for example, but plowing through multistep word problems.

But opponents insist immersing students in English, especially younger ones, works
better. And the lack of qualified teachers is a reason to get rid of the program, they
say. ''I know firsthand from my experience at Chelsea High School that there were
far too many classes of students going through a second full year of instruction in
math, science, or history without having heard a word of good English in the
classroom,'' said Tamayo.

Unz's initiative resembles ones passed overwhelmingly in California and Arizona. It
would let teachers use a ''minimal'' amount of a student's native language, a
guideline some teachers didn't know it contained. But Question 2 also would let
parents sue teachers who ''willfully and repeatedly'' violate the initiative's provisions.

Tamayo said such a crackdown is necessary. ''Teachers would be well warned not
to willfully and repeatedly violate a legitimate law,'' he said.

Other educators, however, say the problem lies less with teachers and more with
shoddy state and school district monitoring of bilingual education. A new law
passed in August tightens state oversight of the programs.

''There was no systematic way of making sure the regulations were being
implemented,'' said Maria de Lourdes Serpa, codirector of the bilingual and early
childhood masters program at Lesley University. ''If you employ people who don't
have qualifications, children are not going to learn very much ... Some school
systems employ anyone who has a degree as a bilingual teacher.''

Salem State College recently won a five-year, $1.3 million federal grant to train 40
new bilingual teachers from a typically untapped pool - paraprofessionals and
uncertified teachers, many of whom already know their way around a classroom,
education professor Ellen Rintell said.

Most bilingual teachers are unsure of how drastically their classroom lives will
change if Question 2 passes. Students older than 10 can obtain waivers to stay in
bilingual education, so schools still will need bilingual teachers.

But many teachers resent Question 2 for the disruption it could bring to students
who struggle with English. And much research shows that transitioning students into
English works, if done well.

''If you're asking a student, even a young student or one that comes in in high
school, to get into all-English classes, you're seriously putting them at risk for failing
by not giving them the support they need, the tools they need to survive,'' said
Krista Carlson, a bilingual teacher at the Bentley Elementary School in Salem.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/15/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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