- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

Recently, State Rep. Marie St. Fleur of Creole, Mass., summarized the paramount predicament in just about all policy debate regarding Immersion versus Bilingual Education:

“We need to redefine what we’re trying to do. It’s not the school system’s responsibility or obligation that every child maintains fluency in their native tongue.” Historically, bilingualism has not been a school directive. The question is whether bilingualism should be a school’s mandate and how best to teach English Learners.

No one would disagree with the proposition that all citizens should become fluent in English. But there is value in a multilingual citizenry. Launching, “the National Security Language Initiative, to expand Americans’ knowledge of critical foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi,” Mr. Bush realizes it is in our interest to have intelligence officers who understand multiple languages. Certainly, it is important to understand Spanish because we are bordered by a Spanish-speaking people and must be able to understand each other if we are to cooperate on matters of national interest.

So, the argument isn’t really about whether Bilingual or Immersion education programs work better. Arizona State University’s Jeff MacSwan, associate professor of language and literacy, says: “Decisions about whether to put students in bilingual or immersion programs are best made at the district level with parental involvement.” He has found that, “Good, conscientious educators can succeed in either model.”

That said, what is the best and most efficient way to learn English? A number of considerations must be addressed.

According to Laura Wittmann, an ESL coordinator in Bangor, Maine: “Determining whether students need ESL services and what type depends on a number of factors, including their age, the amount of English they know, their ability to read and write in their own language, and how well they’ve done in school in their native country.” What works best for one English learner doesn’t necessarily work best for all. Immigrants have a wide range of skills and backgrounds.

In a speech to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, House Speaker Tom Craddick expressed concern that schools must be accountable for ensuring English learners “are progressing toward English proficiency.” Additional problems result from lack of enough bilingual teachers for English learners.

A 2005 report by The Urban Institute concluded, “The shortage of teachers in High-LEP (limited English proficient) schools with experience, adequate academic preparation, and appropriate credentials poses the most significant problem for LEP students.” The Lexington Institute’s Don Soife found ineffective bilingual programs can segregate students unable to exit the program. Another problem arises when these programs emphasize multicultural studies more than teaching students to read and write in English.

Good school districts investigate available alternatives for English learners. In some cases, schools consider dual language programs, which mix native English-speaking students with those learning the language. All students learn a second language and a second culture. “Instruction is given in both English and another language, so students in the program learn the curriculum in two languages.”

Illinois’ Wheeling Elementary School District 21 has begun investigating all variables before committing to dual language to replace any or all of their current Spanish, Russian and Polish bilingual education programs. Rosemary Meyer, director of bilingual and English as a second language education, said: “There are a lot of big questions to answer, mainly, can we do it and can we do it well.”

Studies indicate both groups of students benefit from dual language programs. “The key is having an effective program. You can’t just put it in place and immediately see results,” said Ellen Clark, School Board president. Another consideration is program cost.

Illinois District 54 uses four English/Spanish and one English/Japanese dual language program in its five schools. The program is optional but has a waiting list. There is no need to transition “out of the dual language program, since all the students are supposed to be learning the exact same material as their peers,” said Terri McHugh, District 54 spokeswoman. Most students remain in the program until high school.

In Texas, the State Board of Education wants to learn about Immersion and “ways we as state policymakers can encourage school districts within Texas to move into this model of successful instruction to enable non-English speakers to close the achievement gap more effectively.” They want to hear from “Supporters of bilingual education from Texas and California,” as well.

Regardless of instructional method, major considerations are the needs of the particular students, the costs and whether qualified teachers are available to ensure program fidelity.

Schools are accountable for adequate instruction in any subject. Administrators and School Boards must ensure necessary components for the program’s success are in place. Only then will the needs of all students be addressed.


President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational project to promote information on basic elements of public issues.

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