Are We Failing our 21st Century Students? The Shape and Impact of Bilingual Education in Massachusetts

Because of my husband’s job our seven year old son has spent the past year in a two-way bilingual program in a school in France. He spends half of every day with a native French speaking teacher doing first grade school work in French and the other half of the day with a native English speaking teacher doing first grade school work in English. Having arrived in France last August with perhaps twenty words and only a few phrases in French to his credit, my son now carries on conversations with peers and adults alike in both English and French and he is reading and writing at a first grade or higher level in both. His language abilities and his cultural competence have emerged hand-in-hand. As the months have passed not only have I marveled at his progress but have become increasingly despondent about the fact that when he returns to Massachusetts it will be virtually impossible for us to continue his education in this form. Unless we can afford the nearly $20,000/year to send him to the International School of Boston in Cambridge, or we find some way to live in Holliston or Milton (both with public-school French/English programs but far away from our work) we are faced with the very real possibility that our son’s second language abilities may disappear and with them skills I see as critical in the 21st c.

My sense of the critical nature of language learning in this century was recently echoed in a post by Kongli Liu who wrote: “in today’s world, learning other languages and cultures is no long a luxury, but a necessity. It is true everywhere, especially in the U.S.” Yet, what I once imagined (as a new mom in Somerville in 2002) would be possible in Massachusetts—early language training, support and embracing of bi and tri-lingualism for all of our 21st c. children—now seems a nearly unattainable dream. And as I see it among the roadblocks to a more desirable approach to foreign language education is the Commonwealth’s current policy regarding bilingual education.

In 2002 Massachusetts voters passed a referendum against the continuance of Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) as a method of instruction for English language learners (ELs). Since this decision became law in 2003 there has been a severe reduction in the number and type of foreign-language options in MA public schools; the primary approach for ELs is now Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) programs whose main purpose is to work toward the speedy learning of English.

Having said this, it is worth noting that in addition to the options listed above, there are some remaining public 2-way bilingual programs in the state including The AMIGOS School and programs in Cambridge and the Nathaniel Bowditch School in Salem. Two-way bilingual programs were not affected by the change in the law. But their numbers are very small and in general, MA English-speaking children must wait until they are in middle or high school to encounter foreign-language courses (a practice held over from the 19th c.) and most English Learners are relegated to programs and educational experiences quite different from those of their peers. Equally upsetting to me now is that other people’s children will not have the chance my son has had to become bilingual and bicultural in an environment which taught him at grade level in two languages while assuring him linguistic comfort for half of his school day. Particularly in the early months as a French Learner (FL), my child cherished that portion of the day when his brain could take a break from the new language he was learning and he could demonstrate his academic strengths and remind himself that, as he has said, “I’m smart too.”

The argument for passing and supporting the SEI-focused bill in 2002/3 was the expressed need/desire to help children who enter MA school districts with little or no English to quickly get up to speed and succeed in the US. Perhaps this intent was well-meaning, but so too (supposedly) was the decision in the 19th c. to prohibit the teaching of Native American languages at US government schools. Likewise, laws at the turn of the 20th c. enforced English-only education in response to assimilationist goals and nativist fears spurred by the arrival of “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe, Canada, Mexico and Asia. It was not until 1923 that these English-only laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in Meyer v State of Nebraska. (The Court’s opinion included the following pointed statement:“It is well known that proficiency in a foreign language seldom comes to one not instructed at an early age, and experience shows that this is not injurious to the health, morals or understanding of the ordinary child.”)

In these examples, limiting the teaching of all “live” foreign languages at young ages had one clear goal: educating only in English would help speed up the process of language acquisition and cultural assimilation. I bring this up not for dramatic effect, but to help us think about the legacy of connecting language teaching (or its restriction) to larger political and ideological goals. Importantly, MA was one of the states that fought back against this trend in the 1970s, passing the first bilingual education law in the nation in 1971. But, as many national chroniclers have noted, this early movement toward embracing bilingual education took a sharp turn thirty years later.

Now, after nearly six years of an SEI-approach to public education for ELs in MA, some solid research is beginning to emerge. One of the most recent and most comprehensive studies is a 3-year longitudinal study of the Boston public schools published just 2 months ago by the Mauricio Gaston Institute at UMass Boston. The findings are troubling. In short, the study concludes that “Improvement in the academic achievement of students of limited English proficiency was one of the promises of the sponsors of SEI programs in Massachusetts. This study of Boston’s English Learners shows that the outcomes in this regard are equivocal at best.”

One critical passage from the Report’s Executive Summary is worth quoting in full here:

In the three years following the implementation of Question 2 in the Boston Public Schools, the identification of students of limited English proficiency declined as did the enrollment in programs for English; the enrollment of English Learners in substantially separate Special Education programs more than doubled; and service options for English Learners narrowed. The study found that high school drop-out rates among students in programs for English Learners almost doubled and that the proportion of English Learners in middle school who dropped out more than tripled in those three years. Finally, although there have been some gains for English Learners in both ELA and math MCAS pass rates in 4th and 8th grade, gains for English Learners have not matched those of other groups and as a result gaps between English Learners and other BPS populations have widened.

All of the outcomes mentioned here concern me, but none more so than the finding of a dramatically-increased rate of Special Education enrollment (and a greater overall percentage) among EL than among non- EL students since 2003. What message is this sending? Who is this helping? As a professor at a state college here in MA, I work with a student body that includes many MA public school graduates whose native language is not English and who speak two or more languages. Yet, far too many of my students do not see their bi (or tri)lingualism as a benefit ether personally or professionally. I have been met with sincere surprise when encouraging students to list their language abilities on their resumes or suggesting that they would have a great chance at securing a summer internship precisely because they speak Spanish, or Portuguese, or French in addition to English.

I was vehemently against the passage of referendum 2002 . . . and I asked a lot of questions then, but now I am asking different questions. Questions such as: Where, exactly, is the evidence that restricting two-way bilingual programs has helped MA school children? And, perhaps more importantly, why is it that those programs that do exist in MA are doing just fine? At the top of my list however, is the following query: How can we, as people living in a cosmopolitan, international state, nation and era, defend decisions to limit the acquisition and celebration of multiple languages for all of our young people? Why is it that we will accept two-way bilingual programs at private schools in MA and in some public school systems in some towns, but not in all of our public schools? Why have we restricted access to language and culture-learning for native English speakers and ELs alike?

“Intercultural” and “Global” are buzzwords everywhere these days. But to be able to appreciate and integrate into other cultures in this shrinking world, multilingualism is crucial. And celebrating many languages is crucial. I know that there are many questions and issues beyond those I’ve raised here –including the difference between the impact of two-way immersion programs on the youngest students and older students. However, knowing what research shows about the success of dual-language programs and early language acquisition, I remain troubled by the state of education policy in MA. For a state that sings the praises of multi-lingual famous residents such as Phyllis Wheatley, John Adams, Louis Brandies, Lucy Stone, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Jack Keruac, limiting our youngest citizens’ opportunities to become 21st c. leaders seems foolish at best. If multi-lingualism was a laudable accomplishment those we celebrate in our history books, why isn’t it made possible for all of our children?

Author: Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

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