Bergen Record

Wednesday, June 10, 1998

Bilingual Education's Goal
To get students speaking English very quickly

THE day after Californians voted to abolish bilingual education, New Jersey extended its program. Last week, the state Board of Education gave its stamp of approval to the state's elementary and high school bilingual education plan by adding pre-kindergarten classes as well.

Support in this state for bilingual education is stronger than in California, perhaps because New Jersey's program, which began in 1974, requires students to move more quickly to all-English classes.

California's program was open-ended and allowed students to stay in non-English classes indefinitely. While critics of the move to end bilingual education say there was an unspoken bias against minorities underlying Proposition 227, some minority parents in California were unhappy with how slowly their children learned English or moved into English-only classes.

Now, California students will take one year of intensive study to learn English and then move directly into mainstream classes. They will not study any subject in their native language.

Certainly there can be problems with the way bilingual education is taught. The program has been controversial since its inception because of those critics who see it as a crutch. If there is no time limit as to when students should be "mainstreamed," some students may never become fluent in English. Some teachers may not speak English well enough themselves. And there is always the temptation to keep children in bilingual classes longer than necessary in order to keep receiving state aid. New Jersey contributes $57 million to the cost of bilingual education, and districts pay a part of the cost as well.

But that doesn't mean the whole concept should be scrapped. Children who need a couple of years to learn English should not lose exposure during that time to science, math, and other difficult subjects. In a bilingual program, students study subjects in their native language at the same time they are studying English. The key is requiring a reasonable time limit so that students know they must be proficient by a certain deadline.

New Jersey's program says children should be studying all subjects in English within three years, and state officials say about three-quarters of the students do meet that goal.

Two or three years should be enough. The main goal should be to get children speaking, reading, and writing English as soon as possible.

New Jersey also allows districts to use other teaching methods, such as English total immersion classes, and parents may refuse bilingual classes for their children. That option became law in 1996, amid predictions that the new law would kill bilingual education because so many parents would choose not to have their children take part. But those predictions have not come true.

Educators say that's because New Jersey offers districts the flexibility to try various approaches. That's far better than abandoning bilingual education altogether, as long as the state monitors districts and sees to it that children are proficient in English and mainstreamed within two to three years.