BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO — Education policy has rarely garnered our collective attention as it does now. With debates raging across the country about how to boost student learning and evaluate and pay teachers, and whether Superman will show up to save the most poorly performing schools, education is a hot topic.
One aspect that needs more attention, though, is the question of how best to educate students whose native language is not English. It's a politically charged topic that rarely focuses on research and instead pits those who don't want to spend resources on instructing children in any language other than English against those who believe bilingual education is a civil right.
Those arguments ignore the reality that the performance of students not fluent in English affects the overall performance of nearly every public school in the country.
The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics says that between 1979 and 2008, the number of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 3.8 million to 10.9 million, or from 9 percent to 21 percent of the population in this age range. This statistic does not begin to tell the story of what level of English familiarity students carry with them to school, what language they speak — the Illinois Board of Education recognizes more than 160 languages spoken at home, and New York City schools offer many materials translated into 13 languages — or what sort of services their schools offer to help them learn English.
Headlines tend to blare about school districts with majority-Latino student populations — California's and Arizona's districts just achieved that status — but it's important to remember that though this topic is generally discussed in terms of whether Spanish-speakers should be taught in English or Spanish, it is not just a Hispanic issue and shouldn't be treated as one.
Right now each state individually decides how to educate English-language learners based on the tenets of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which sought to ensure a quality education for students with limited English skills. Programs range from those in which students are fully immersed in English-language classrooms with various "English as a second language" programs, to classrooms where a student is taught completely in his or her native language with additional English-language instruction for an eventual transition to English-only classrooms.
This is where things get even trickier. Usually, when there is a critical mass of children who share the same language, students are sheltered in native-language classrooms. Yet other students who speak a foreign tongue may get "immersed." For instance, if a native Polish speaker enrolls in a school that has enough students to teach dedicated classes in Spanish but not enough to provide instruction in Polish, he or she gets immersed in English. Some say this is pragmatic, others call it discriminatory.
Pro-bilingual education experts claim that studies showing native-language instruction's positive effect on English acquisition justifies transitional bilingual classes. But this research has been challenged time and again by studies showing the method doesn't always help, and sometimes harms, English-language acquisition. Through the years, states such as Arizona, California and Massachusetts have returned from bilingual methods to English-immersion models.
I recently attended a bilingual and dual-language education conference where Diane August of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics shocked participants by citing several recent studies to verify anecdotal evidence that goes back generations: Preschoolers who are immersed in English without extensive native-language support learn English as well as those in bilingual or other native-language-supported classrooms.
I was delighted she busted the main myth about the "need" to educate certain students in native language classes, but while that's wonderful news for the youngest students, the same hasn't yet been proved for those in middle or high school. Though the research suggests that the large majority of today's school-age English language learners are U.S.-born, those who are immigrants enter schools at different grades and really do require different educational approaches to achieve the goal of fluency in English.
This is yet another piece of a puzzle that demands serious conversation across all our increasingly diverse states.
Regardless of which native language is spoken in a student's home, the challenges faced by English-language learners affect all public school children. Rather than the patchwork system we have now, we need national guidelines for helping these students, and therefore their schools, succeed.