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State’s Bilingual Education Laws Examined

The Commonwealth’s bilingual education laws may soon see major changes.

Sen. Robert Antonioni (D-Leominster) and Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield), House and Senate Chairmen of the Joint Legislative Committee on Education, announced yesterday they plan to file a bill that will make substantial changes to the laws.

Some of the topics about bilingual education included giving individual districts more flexibility in how they choose to educate bilingual students while simultaneously monitoring their progress closely.

Entitled “English Opportunities for All,” the bill “requires that limited English proficient students have the same opportunities as all students,” Antonioni said.

The plan proposes giving school districts more options for bilingual education, rather than mandating a single approach. These options include structured immersion, where students are placed in a self-contained classroom; submersion, where bilingual children are mainstreamed; or English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, which places students in a special pullout program.

“We’re attempting to give [the districts] the tools,” Antonioni said. “And we’ll see what works.”

He said districts would have the option to combine bilingual education programs if they thought doing so would increase students’ progress.

Students would be assessed, and each district would implement plans that allow for the learning situation that would best benefit its students. In doing so it is hoped that the program “will generate success we haven’t seen in years,” Antonioni said.

Under the bill, districts would be required to submit a program to the state every three years so they could be continuously evaluated. The districts would also assess students’ progress annually with programs they create themselves as opposed to a statewide assessment tool such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

Although the legislation gives school districts freedom in choosing what method of bilingual education works best for them individually, it also emphasizes the importance of holding them responsible for maintaining a degree of progress.

“The district is held accountable for student performance under the plan it develops,” Antonioni said.

The plan also gives parents an opportunity to be involved in the choice of the district, Antonioni said.

The bill includes a hearing requirement where the entire community would be welcome for the opportunities for the parents to work with school administrators. Taking into account the needs of all of the community would be more conducive to determining the best plan, he added.

Should it go into effect, the bill would create a position in the Department of Education called the Office of Language Acquisition, which would receive and approve the plans of each district.

According to a press release, the bill would require bilingual education teachers to be certified consistently with education reform requirements and would limit the number of years teachers are allowed to teach under a waiver. Under the current system, it is not uncommon for bilingual students to be taught mostly in their own language by instructors who are not proficient in English or in a child’s first language.

The main opposition to the “English Opportunities for All” proposal is a ballot initiative, which was introduced in July of 2001, that would require children be put in intensive “sheltered English immersion” programs to teach them English as fast as possible. Modeled largely on programs in both California and Arizona, this initiative gained support from the organization English for the Children of Massachusetts and from the Massachusetts Bilingual Education Advisory Council upon its proposal.

The legislation proposed today addressed the need for new tactics in bilingual education.

“We are changing the one-size-fits-all mechanism,” Antonioni said. The bill focuses on holding limited English proficient students to high standards similar to those other students have been held to under education reform.

“We know that limited English proficient students are being left behind,” Larkin said. “As Education Reform and MCAS have shown us, when students are held to high standards they perform. It’s long past time we held limited English proficient students and the programs that serve them to these same standards.”

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