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District Administrator Calls for Illinois to End Bilingual Ed. Mandate


Illinois' requirement for school districts to offer bilingual education is hurting English-language learners, argues Anne Swanson, an assistant superintendent for the Woodland Community Consolidated School District in Illinois, in a paper released this month by the Lexington Institute. "Use of native-language instruction should be permissive and not mandatory," she writes.

And the Illinois Association of School Boards apparently agrees with her. Ben Schwarm, the associate executive director for that organization, writes in a preface to the paper that his organization passed a resolution last year saying it would ask the state legislature to make bilingual education optional. But he told me this week that the association never made that request because other issues took a higher priority.

For more than 30 years, the state's education code has said districts have to offer bilingual education if a school has 20 or more ELLs who speak the same language.

In her school district, Swanson says, "bilingual requirements create ethnically and economically segregated classrooms." She says that because of their numbers, Spanish-speaking students end up being the only students in bilingual education.

She says that the Hispanic ELLs in the district aren't performing as well on state tests as ELLs who speak other native languages and take English-as-a-second-language classes. In K-2, ELLs get about 30 minutes of ESL a day; in grades 3-9, they get 50-90 minutes of ESL.

Part of the problem with bilingual education, she says, is that the district cannot find enough bilingual teachers who are well-qualified.

Matthew Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois state board of education, responded in an e-mail to Swanson's paper by stressing that while school districts must offer bilingual education if they have a critical mass of students who speak the same language, they may choose from a number of "proven program models." He added, "The amount of native-language instruction provided may vary based upon the English-language-proficiency level of each student."

You may remember that the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that is generally against bilingual education, released a paper previously written by another Illinois administrator who said that bilingual education wasn't working in his school district. That administrator also felt the state should do away with the mandate.

Is there anyone else out there in Illinois who wants to make this case?


I'm from Illinois, and I'm researching this very topic. Charter schools have considerably more flexibility than district schools when it comes to bilingual education. Indeed, they enjoy the kind of flexibility desired by Dr. Prosise and Dr. Swanson. Early returns suggest that, at campuses enrolling higher-than-average percentages of Hispanic and/or LEP students, those subgroups perform above district averages. The prevalent approach to instruction at those campuses is English language immersion (though it is worth pointing out that every immersion program is different); per Prosise's and Swanson's papers, immersion is very, very difficult to implement in their districts, due to state mandates.

I should note - or should have noted above - that my forthcoming study focuses on charter schools in Illinois.

The article points out the real cause of inadequacy at teaching bilingual programs: the lack of qualified teachers in bilingual, dual language or even ESL teaching. When are the school administrators going to tell the Universities to get their act together in the preparation of teachers that are bilingually capable, and do not bury bilingual students under English Only higher education teaching?

As a bilingual teacher I owe all my students the best education I can provide for them. Since I love my profession and respect my students I would not think of watering down the curriculum or cuddling any of them. For those unfamiliar with the term bilingual, it means bi (two) lingual (language). My students get instruction in two languages.
If we have unqualified teachers and students are not learning then maybe we should ask why this has been allowed to happen. The government created bilingual education, yet it has done very little to ensure its success. It is a program that is in great need of reform. Politics, ignorance and biases have gotten in the way of reform. It is a program that has been ignored by those with the power to create the laws and by school administrators all over this country that have neglected the needs of the bilingual students. Although I do not like “No Child Left Behind”, its mandates has forced school districts to think about the education of bilingual/ELL students, only because school districts do not want to be penalized by failure of these students.
If bilingual education has not worked it may be due to the lack of interest in part of the government and school districts. To ensure that a program works one cannot neglect it or just throw money at it. If people do not understand or believe in a program they will not make it work. I know that bilingual education works because I see it everyday in my classroom.
Since this country is monolingual, unlike Europe and other parts of the world, we may not truly understand what it takes to learn a new language while sitting in a classroom and having to master new knowledge in a language that may be unintelligible. We need to understand that people cannot learn what they cannot understand. There is a loss of learning when students are expected to learn in a language unfamiliar to them. If a student can learn in their native language they do not need to relearn what they learned. Learning transfers from one language to another. They need to be given the time to learn the new language and the academic language.
Family income and education are crucial to any child’s education. If we compare other ELLs to the Hispanic ELLs we need to consider if there are any differences between the migrant groups in regards to the parents’ educational level as well as how the culture of each migrant group views the educational process.

Another benefit of bilingual education is that it allows students to use their native language as a tool to learn English through the use of cognates. This is a gift that bilingual teachers should be presenting to their students. Unfortunately, this gift is taken away as soon as we take away the option of providing bilingual education and the many benefits it brings. I have seen my students grow academically in reading and math and as independent thinkers. They have used the gift of their native language to help them develop their new language and as learners. Anyone who has learned a new language in middle school or high school should understand the benefits of using cognates to learn a new language.

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