Students need bilingual education

by Matthew Smith

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In an era with so much ethnic diversity, language diversity is being attacked. Monolingual English advocates, some of whom have xenophobic views toward immigration, have launched an assault against bilingual education. Their main argument is English should be the law of the land and the language of instruction. However, their true intentions are to destroy linguistic diversity and force assimilation down the throats of immigrant communities.

In California, bilingual education has been virtually outlawed in public schools by Proposition 227, with a handful of exceptions. Some schools have maneuvered around it by teaching English the first 30 days of instruction and/or having parents sign a waiver for bilingual education.

The proposition, which passed with 61 percent of the vote, should have never been allowed on the ballot. Ordinary people are not qualified to make decisions about education policy, including its language policy, and generally know nothing about the effects of the policy or the effectiveness of bilingual programs. The English-only movement knows this and relied on a misleading and racist campaign that distorted facts. The more educated and qualified people who could make better decisions on linguistic policy, such as teachers, school administrators, and every major candidate for governor in 1998—both Democrats and Republicans—overwhelmingly opposed Proposition 227. They knew it would not help English Language Learners to learn English.

Contrary to English-only logic, more English does not lead to better English. Immersion, or should I say submersion, does not work if a student has no previous background knowledge of English. A student in such a program may eventually learn enough to speak reasonably well and get by with some of his or her schoolwork. But more often than not the student will struggle to gain fluency in the language or the reading skills necessary to achieve academically. Without a complete understanding of academic English or instruction in their native language, acquiring necessary academic skills becomes more difficult for ELLs. Test results from EJE Academies Charter School, a dual-language school, show that ELLs have the second-lowest grades and test scores of any ethnic or learning subgroup next to students in special education.

Lost in translation in this issue is bilingual education does a better job of teaching ELLs English. Developing oral and reading comprehension skills in a student’s native language also helps them to develop these same skills in their second language, which is English in the U.S. When someone acquires knowledge in their native language, it helps them to transfer it to their second language. In the classroom or at home, a native Spanish speaker who learns a lesson on atoms and molecules in Spanish can develop the background knowledge needed to understand the concept, and simply learn how to translate it into English. On average, ELLs who are taught to read in a second language and in their home language score 12 to 15 percent higher in English literacy than those who are taught only a second language, according to the American Federation of Teachers.  ELLs at bilingual education and dual-immersion schools tend to score higher both in academic content and English proficiency. EJE Elementary Academy, a bilingual education charter school in El Cajon, for example, has much stronger test scores—including English language arts—than the English-only Rosa Parks Elementary School in City Heights, even though both schools are approximately 80 percent Hispanic. ELLs at EJE Academy have an Academic Performance Index score of 851 compared to 776 at Rosa Parks.

San Diego State mathematics and economics freshman Eric De Anda was in a bilingual education program known as English Language Development at San Ysidro High School. The program begins with “ELD 1/2″ in which instruction is in Spanish. At this level, ELLs focus on vocabulary and communication. Students move on to the next level as soon as the program has determined they’re ready. The amount of English instruction gradually increases as the student moves on from one ELD class to the next. The last course, “ELD 7/8” is entirely in English and is accepted for admission into four-year universities.

“The ELD program definitely helped me improve in all of my classes.” De Anda said. “It probably would have been worse if it wasn’t for the ELD program.”

Similar to EJE Academy, bilingual education has been successful at San Ysidro High, where nearly half of the students are English learners. San Ysidro High has higher test scores than Clairemont High School, which only has approximately one-third of the proportion of ELLs and does not have a bilingual program. While ELLs at both schools have below-average scores for English Language Arts on the California High School Exit Exam, English learners at San Ysidro scored 43 percent compared to 24 percent at Clairemont.

Bilingual education is a proven method for improving English and academic skills. Educational policies shouldn’t be dictated by nativist and xenophobic fear mongers who want to wipe out an immigrant’s native language. This extreme view of assimilation by trying to take away someone’s first language is no different from the Indian boarding schools of the past beating Native Americans for speaking their language. The U.S. need policies that don’t attack a student’s culture and are proven to work.

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