A Costa Rican native whose kids attend school in New Jersey, Martinez values language for her kids but does not want them in bilingual classes.
That’s what she told school officials when they recommended that her three kids be placed in a bilingual class.
Parents know best. Or do they?
The school officials’ recommendation for the bilingual class was based on the fact that some kids scored poorly on language tests in the first week of classes.
The bilingual program in question only exists for kindergarten through third grade. The idea is to give students with weak English skills an opportunity to acquire the necessary tools to succeed, including the English language.
The advantages of bilingual classes have been proven by research. But in the education of immigrant kids often it’s emotion that rules rather than research.
That’s what happened in California, Massachusetts, and Arizona, which virtually eliminated bilingual education through the initiative process.
In essence, voters were asked to decide between English and Spanish and of course English won.
Voters don’t have time to listen to research. Parents of immigrant kids also to a large extent want their kids to be taught in English not realizing that education goes far beyond the knowledge of this language.
There are plenty of Americans who know English but don’t have the necessary education to succeed. English is one of the basic requirements for education but many others are just as important.
One of them has to do with self-esteem. When kids speaking a language other than English begin school they are faced with a linguistic and culture shock. Some kids do just fine, but many others don’t. For some, merely asking their teacher to go the bathroom can be a serious challenge in an English-only setting.
Dumping kids into an ocean of English-only schools may sound good to people who know little about education.
This idea that English-only education is the best approach is reinforced by the myth that it worked in the past and will also work now.
Historically, kids of immigrants did not do very well since they started school with a language deficit. In the 1920’s 50% of the special education students in New York City were of Italian extraction. They were tested in English and given their low language scores were labeled below average.
Education does not start when kids enter the classroom. At age 5 or 6 kids have had “education” from parents and families. If that “education” has been in a language or culture outside of the U.S., they will need time to catch up.
Bilingual education is a measure to even the playing field by giving kids without solid English language skills the time to reach their American counterparts. The low scores on state tests are often interpreted as lack of academic ability and some kids end up in special education classes.
Bilingual education recognizes that different kinds of tests and a different kind of methodology are necessary to give these kids the best chance for success.
Unfortunately, some people are totally against anything that’s “bilingual,” from education to services in languages other than English. Unlike other countries where being bilingual is viewed as an asset and in many cases indispensable, in the U.S. the bias is toward English and English only.
Sadly, when parents of immigrant kids act on their bias toward English they may not be doing their offspring a favor.
In New Jersey parents can choose to have their kids educated in bilingual education programs or English only. School officials need to work with parents and explain calmly and rationally what’s best for students. Hopefully, parents will listen.
© Domenico Maceri