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Overhauling Bilingual Education

The new school year is guaranteed to intensify the already contentious debate about ways to narrow the achievement gap between the nation's second largest ethnic group and its white counterparts. I'm referring to the performance of Hispanics, whose numbers have grown dramatically over the past four decades until they now constitute 21 percent of the public school student population.

Although test scores of Hispanic and white students have risen, the gap today is the same as it was in 1990, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The usual explanation is that there are four million Hispanic students in public schools whose first language is not English. There is much truth to this assertion because the difference in achievement between English language learners and their Hispanic classmates who are proficient in English in eighth grade reading, for example, is four grade levels.

Nevertheless, this explanation is not entirely satisfactory. For example, Florida, which has one of the highest Hispanic populations in the U.S., reports that 31 percent of its Hispanic students score proficient or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state's public school chancellor attributes the results to its dual language immersion classes and to teacher training programs specifically designed to help non-English speakers.

The latter may be the crucial factor. Consider Massachusetts, where the number of English-language learners has increased 50 percent over the past decade. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 45,000 teachers in 275 school districts in the state lack the skills to teach these students ("Language gaps plague Mass. Schools," editorial, The Boston Globe, Sept. 26). Not all English-language learners, of course, are Hispanic. But they are a growing presence in Massachusetts.

Recognizing that dual language immersion classes have the potential to accelerate acquisition of English, California has embraced this approach. Actually, the state had little choice because in 1998 Proposition 227 eliminated most bilingual instruction. Although parents have the right to request bilingual instruction in certain cases, less than one-third of them have done so. As in Massachusetts, there are not enough certified bilingual teachers. Over the past decade, the number of such teachers has fallen from 1,829 to 1,147 per year, according to the California Teacher Commission.

There is one hopeful sign that Hispanics are being better educated than in the past. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there was a 24 percent increase in the number of Hispanics attending college from 2009 to 2010. The jump brings the overall number to 20.3 million from 19.8 million a year earlier. They now constitute the largest minority group on all campuses. The rise cannot be attributed to population growth because in the period in question the population of 18- to 24 year-old Hispanics rose by only seven percent, which was far slower than the surge in their rate of college enrollment.

Still, states cannot rest on their laurels. They still need to recruit and retain far greater numbers of teachers with bilingual skills and cross-cultural awareness. Without well trained classroom teachers, the progress made runs the risk of being undermined.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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