English-Language Learners

Interest in Bilingual-Instruction Programs Growing, Despite Scrutiny

By Marlena Chertock — April 11, 2014 2 min read
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Latino parents are increasingly sending their children to bilingual schools to retain the family’s Spanish-language fluency, according to an article by Kelli Korducki on NPR’s Code Switch blog. Bilingual schools offer a way for Spanish speakers and English-language learners to learn English while retaining their native tongues, she writes. Korducki also cites a 2006 National Literacy Panel report finding that Spanish-dominant students learn English more quickly in classrooms that include Spanish-language instruction.

Critics of bilingual programs, like Ron Unz, who sponsored Proposition 227 to eradicate bilingual education in California in 1998, say test scores prove that Spanish-speakers don’t learn English effectively in bilingual schools, Korducki writes.

Proponents say tests often aren’t able to portray the full effects of bilingual programs.

The avalanche of testing, given predominantly in English, has really pushed all schools to do more in English than I think is pedagogically appropriate," says Robert Petersen, who created a bilingual, public K-5 school in Milwaukee, Wisc. in 1988.

Still, bilingual education programs remain a source of contention. Recently, officials in Massachusetts set plans to eliminate a dual-language program at Dever Elementary School in Dorchester, Mass., according to an article in The Boston Globe by James Vaznis.

State officials say the dual-language program played a major role in Dever's persistently low test scores that caused it to slide into receivership and they believe that an English-only approach to instruction is the best way to boost achievement, Vaznis writes.

Teachers and parents protested the decision and tried to keep the popular program in place, alleging that officials relied on MCAS test results while ignoring other data, Vaznis writes. Teachers at the school were heavily invested in the program:

Teachers pushed the initiative because they believed it would boost the achievement of English-language learners and would be a draw for English-speaking families, as well. The Dever was aggressively expanding the program to encapsulate all classrooms and grade levels and its nearly 600 students. Teachers spent countless hours after school and over weekends writing their own curriculums and translating instructional materials into Spanish, according to a state report this year on the Dever's overhaul, which the state's appointed receiver, Blueprint Schools Network, helped to prepare.

At the same time, Vaznis writes that “state education said the school struggled to hire teachers who could teach in both languages and failed to provide enough teacher training.”

Many parents plan to enroll their children in other dual-language schools, and most, or all, of the teachers at Dever will leave at the end of the school year, according to President of the Boston Teachers Union Richard Stutman, Vaznis writes. Other schools in Boston will continue their dual-language programs.

In 2011, Education Week reported on a 2010 study from Johns Hopkins University on reading and language outcomes in bilingual education. The study concluded that over a period of five years, Spanish-speakers learned to read English equally well despite being taught in English or both English and their native language.

In 2013 there were more than 37 million Spanish-speakers in America, according to the Pew Research Center. This number is expected to rise between 39 million to 43 million Spanish-speakers, most of them Hispanic, through 2020, according to a 2011 paper by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Division.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.