The Power of Language: Is Bilingual Education Expanding Opportunity or Limiting Assimilation?

"One of the goals of this panel is to find common ground," noted Dr. Jim Cummins, professor of education at the University of Toronto. Cummins spoke February 25 during a panel discussion on the condition of bilingual education in America today. It was part of the Center for Leadership and Public Interest Advocacy's semester-long focus on public education issues.

The panelists--Cummins, Efrain Martinez, and Rosalie Porter--kept up a lively discussion, moderated by Peter Negroni, Springfield superintendent of schools. The range of opinions, and the obvious passion of the speakers for their subject, sparked reactions of keen interest and approval among the packed audience in Gamble Auditorium.

Before introducing the speakers, Negroni talked about his vision for public education. He affirmed a need for "productive dialogue" to transform the public-school system, and said schools should be equipped to respond to each child's unique needs, rather than mold all children in a certain way.

For Negroni, who came to this country at a young age, speaking no English, it is important that every child receive equal opportunities at school. Negroni observed that "the problem with the public-school system in America is not that [schools] aren't what they used to be. It is that they are what they used to be!"

Efrain Martinez, a Puerto Rican who came to America to learn English as an adult, is now principal of the Gerena German Community School in Springfield. "Education, to be equal, has to be understandable," he said. Martinez noted the conflicting views of the business community and the government, saying the former sees fluency in a second language as a must for the next century, whereas the latter sees a second language more as "the private domain of ethnic minorities." He wondered aloud how it is that a country whose constitution calls for equal access and opportunity also believes its "children are not intelligent enough to learn a second language!"

Rosalie Porter is director of research at the Institute for Research in English Acquisition. Her address focused on the goals of bilingual education, and the methods, strategies, and cognitive approaches that could help provide "equal opportunity to a quality education for every child who speaks English as a second language."

Porter herself learned English "the hard way" in the "bad old days when you sat in the back of the class and were given no special attention." Porter believes that every child should have access to the same materials, thereby increasing the level of integration of bilingual children into schools, and reducing their typically high dropout rate. Porter believes that there is no "one, best way to implement bilingual education," and that teachers need feedback and a clear sense of accountability from the government. She is disappointed that "choice and accountability [have] been sorely lacking in Massachusetts."

Jim Cummins talked about the best methods for teaching bilingual education. "Teachers have to become learners," he said, to understand the unique position of bilingual children. He has noted that "English skills will be better developed if we take the opportunity to promote students' academic development in the first language in addition to English." This two-way system works, he says, because bilingual teachers introduce English a few years after the native language, and gradually both languages are given equal weight. This approach, he believes, "will make bilingualism and biliteracy a reality for all students."