Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wednesday Issue: Bilingual Education y Los Candidatos

When asked during the final GOP candidate debate how he would work to improve our nation's public schools, Mitt Romney pointed to his work in Massachusetts as a model for the nation, declaring, " ...we also fought for English immersion. We wanted our kids coming to school to learn English from the very beginning."

Romney is not the only presidential candidate to support English immersion programs and he is certainly not the most vehement supporter. Case in point: Tom Tancredo, who skipped the Univision debate because he opposed the idea of having his remarks translated into a language other than English.

Compared to other issues, such as affordable health care and the war in Iraq, bilingual education has gotten fairly little airtime during this the presidential race. However, with immigration being a hot-button issue on the table, bilingual education is sure to come into the spotlight soon.

And the candidates are prepared. When Hispanic Link, a weekly newspaper on Latino issues, surveyed the campaigns on this issue, most candidates had statements ready. The outcome? Clinton, Richardson, Dodd, Edwards and Obama were for bilingual education - including instruction in the students' native languages*. Romney and Tancredo were against bilingual education and support English-only instruction.

* I've specified this because the term "bilingual education" sometimes includes English-only ESL programs (although the reason for that is...unknown).

What are the candidates basing their decisions on? Well, it's probably not conclusive research. As EdWeek's Mary Ann Zehr notes, high-quality research about English language instruction programs is scant. There are a lot of different methods for teaching English as a second language, but none can be ranked as the absolute best form.

My suspicion is that their positions on bilingual education are too-closely linked to their immigration stance. Candidates who want to make a show of their patriotism and their "tough stance on illegal immigrants" cry "English-only, English-only." In doing so, they deny important opportunities to both ELLs and native English speakers - opportunities like two-way dual immersion schools.

At a time when America's international test scores are dropping, we should be seeking ways to make ourselves more globally competitive - and that means not isolating ourselves linguistically. Imagine the possibilities of a bilingual or trilingual America where all students were able to speak, read, and write in at least one other language. Their opportunities - and those of our country - would be endless.

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