English-Language Learners

Romney Touts Role in Dismantling Bilingual Education in Mass.

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 30, 2011 2 min read
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ADDENDUM: A Learning the Language reader rightly suggested that I should have mentioned some of the important research on bilingual education vs. English immersion in this post on Mitt Romney. There’s the five-year study from the American Institutes of Research and WestEd that came out in 2006 examining the effects of Proposition 227 (the California ballot initiative that sharply curtailed bilingual education) on achievement. And a book published by the California Department of Education last year that invited prominent scholars to synthesize the best available research for how to improve achievement for English-language learners.

The Iowa caucuses are just a few days away and Mitt Romney, at least as of this morning, appears to be the frontrunner in the first contest of the 2012 presidential nomination sweepstakes.

For those of you trying to make a decision about the GOP candidates based on their education policies and philosophy, you can get a lot of insight on Romney over at Politics K-12, where Alyson Klein details the candidate’s thinking about schooling by parsing a chapter from his book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”

Two pages in that chapter get into Romney’s view on bilingual education vs. English immersion, which is interesting but not terribly surprising.

While he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney said he kept hearing that students were graduating from high schools in his state without being fluent in English. Those anecdotes were coming to him in the months after Massachusetts voters had passed a ballot initiative to curtail bilingual education in the state.

Astonished by this, the then-governor set about examining the state’s bilingual education programs and asking questions about their effectiveness. He said the data were “scant” on whether bilingual programs produced better outcomes for students than English immersion programs. He picked up the phone and “called principals in California,” where bilingual education had mostly been replaced with English immersion. The principals he talked to told him English immersion was better for students learning the language.

His conclusion? That bilingual education in Massachusetts had become little more than an employment program for bilingual teachers, who, he asserts, could not speak English well themselves.

When Romney sought the GOP nomination four years ago, he was upfront about his opposition to bilingual education and his support for ending it in Massachusetts. But pages 204-205 in his book’s chapter on education tell us even more perhaps about the provenance of his stance.

He writes that during a visit to a Boston elementary school, he was stunned to discover that nearly all of the children enrolled in bilingual courses were American-born, not foreign-born:

At a student- body assembly, I asked how many youngsters were born outside the United States. Only a few hands went up. Surprised, I asked my next question: "How many of you are in bilingual education classes?" This time, the great majority of hands shot skyward, and the truth became obvious. Kids who were born in America, who watched television in America and played video games in America--thoroughly American kids--were being assigned to bilingual classes only to allow bilingual teachers to keep their jobs. The result that these students would be less fluent in English didn't seem to bother anybody!

Romney also says that immigrant parents he met favored English immersion for their children and that school officials often ignored their preference.

I don’t anticipate that bilingual education vs. English immersion will become a marquee issue in this election cycle. But as the number of English-language learners in the United States continues to grow, it could become a matter that the president, whoever he or she may be, needs to weigh in on. And the best thing that could happen is for the debate to be stripped of the politics that continue to hang over it so that policymakers and educators could figure out what’s truly best for teaching the language.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.