Bilingualism is an asset, and Mass. schools should promote it

It’s time to free schools to teach English language learners in the ways that best meet their needs – and to enable high school graduates to earn a ‘Seal of Biliteracy’.

Language opportunityWhen children who don’t speak English enroll in a Massachusetts public school, they go into an English “immersion” program – not just to learn the language, but for math, science and all subjects. Their teachers are specially trained to work with “English language learners,” but by law, even if they speak a student’s native language, they can’t use anything but English in the classroom.

For some children, immersion works well, and they quickly learn enough English to succeed in school. Others struggle, however, and fall behind significantly in their education.

And whether or not they thrive in English, often students who were fluent in their native language when they arrived get “rusty” after a few years. They may still do fine in casual conversation, but struggle to read, write or use the language in a more formal setting.

Bills before the Massachusetts Legislature this session aim to change that.

S.232 and H.2058, An Act for Language Opportunity for Our Kids (the LOOK bill), and H.2839, An Act to Reform English Language Learning Education would give schools the flexibility to teach English language learners in the way that best meets their needs – immersion or bilingual instruction. It would also encourage bilingualism by enabling districts to award a “Seal of Biliteracy” to high school graduates who are proficient in more than one language, as schools in 24 states already do.

MIRA is part of the Massachusetts Language Opportunity Coalition, which supports the legislation and is coordinating a statewide Seal of Biliteracy Pilot Program. Last week, Amy Grunder, MIRA’s legislative director, testified in favor of the bill before the Joint Committee on Education.

“The current approach disadvantages English language learners by limiting access to comprehensive, academically tested models of instruction, including dual language learning and transitional bilingual education,” Grunder testified.

English language learners are the fastest-growing population in Massachusetts schools, Grunder noted, doubling since the year 2000 to more than 90,000 students; 82% of them are U.S. citizens. Indeed, one in five Massachusetts schoolchildren has a first language other than English.

“They are the children of immigrants from all over the world, collectively speaking over 150 languages at home, and heirs to the linguistic and cultural inheritance of their parents as well as their communities and our greater society,” Grunder said.

Speaking two languages could give these students a big advantage, but instead, they often struggle in school. English language learners lag behind their peers by every significant measure of success, including completion of MassCore requirements, MCAS and SAT performance, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment. They also have the highest dropout rate.

“Research suggests that the failure lies not with these students, but with the limitations inherent in relying solely on ‘sheltered English immersion’ to meet all students’ needs, regardless of age, background, or prior experience with formal schooling,” Grunder said. “This must change.”

Native English speakers are also disadvantaged by the current system. The law allows dual-language programs, in which native English and Spanish speakers, for example, can learn together and thus master both languages, but procedural barriers make it so hard that only nine districts offer this option.

“The data is clear that bilingualism correlates to improved academic performance,” Grunder said. “Bilingual workers are also increasingly sought by Massachusetts employers in our increasingly global marketplace. We need to remove the legal and procedural barriers to language learning, and instead encourage programs that develop ‘first’ language and new language proficiency for all students.”

MIRA Executive Director Eva Millona, who co-signed the testimony submitted by Grunder, said it’s time for the Commonwealth to recognize bilingualism for the huge asset that it is.

“Few states are as linguistically and culturally diverse as Massachusetts,” Millona said. “We are fortunate to have talented young people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, speaking many different languages. Our schools need to value and nurture this diversity, and ensure that learning English doesn’t come at the expense of bilingualism and overall academic success. Our young people deserve to make the most of all their assets.”