By Jim Hiller of Beaverton, Oregon. Jim describes himself as "a left-handed, imaginative educator with an interest in politics, history, and writing."
For us Oregonians, we are familiar with the annual fall ritual that overtakes our state from time to time. No, I’m not talking about the turning of the leaves, or the rains coming in from the Pacific, or even the shortening days and cool evenings.
I’m talking about Oregon’s infamous “Measure” season, when Oregonians get to vote on things like teacher unions, or banning homosexuality, or gutting the state’s tax system. Oregon’s latest season is ripe with many education measures once again, all bad ideas proposed by the anti-everything measure king Bill Sizemore. One of the most heinous ideas: Measure 58, Oregon’s “English-only in schools” law.
The impetus for this law is quite charming. Apparently, Sizemore was talking to “a couple of teachers” who claimed that students were forced into classes for “English learners” when they could have all along been in regular education classes. The hidden messages in his reasons suggests that:
- Students are forced into these programs against their will
- Students languish in these programs without a way to leave them
- These programs are detrimental to a child’s learning by depriving them of a “real education”
Nothing could be farther from the truth. My experience, working in a school where I had eight to ten difference languages in my classroom every year, was entirely different.
First, parents who come to our districts have a legal right to opt out of any special programs offered by the school. Every year, I knew of a student or two whose parent would choose not to allow their child to attend our ESL program. While I may or may not have agreed with that decision, ultimately, the decision rested with the parents, end of story.
Second, the students who are in ESL programs are tested every year, based on their language capabilities. Students are given scores, which are shared with teachers and parents, that inform them of their language development. Students who progress to a successful level are exited from the program, but may still be monitored by the staff in case of any issues.
Third, these programs do something for the children that the regular education teacher often cannot. While ESL programs look different across districts and the state, most offer smaller group instruction to students, specifically tailored to learning our language. Students are placed in groups with other students in their same language profile (for example, beginners to English are placed in a group) with teachers trained and certified to teach English to students learning our language. Often, ESL teachers work in conjunction with the classroom teacher to reinforce vocabulary and concepts taught in the classroom. Once, I had the fortunate gift of having an ESL teacher co-teach science and social studies units directly in my classroom!
The other part of this issue are schools that offer Two-Way Immersion or Dual Language classes, which are taught in both the students’ native language and in English. The theory behind this says that students who learn to read and write in their native language first actually pick up reading and writing in English more quickly. Why, you may ask?
It’s quite simple. You only learn how to read once in your life. Let’s say I decided to learn Spanish. I wouldn’t need to learn the act of reading all over again; in fact, I can pretty much sound out Spanish rather easily (although to a native speaker, I’m sure I sound hideous!). I would need much help with vocabulary, language structure, and pronunciation to help me understand what I was reading. But I can still do the act of reading.
So you take a boy from Mexico who speaks fluent Spanish. Teach him to read in Spanish first, and he only has to worry about one cognitive task. But trying to teach him to read WHILE learning English, and now he has two cognitive tasks, compounding the problem.
Sizemore would rather put him into a classroom, quite possibly with a teacher who hasn’t been properly trained in any ESL strategies, so that he could pick up English “more quickly”. To me, that smacks of Republican elitism if not out and out racism. Let’s make his educational experience as hard and difficult as possible, so that when he gets to high school, he just simply drops out. Schools are obligated to provide the best education for their students. Why would anyone want to tie school’s hands when serving our most neediest and most deserving population?
So, Mr. Sizemore, when writing up your next set of twenty-five ballot measures that most Oregonians are going to vote down simply because you’ve sponsored them, talk to me next time. I’ll give you a few ideas. If all it takes for you to get ideas for these measure is “talking to a couple of teachers”, then I’ll help you create one that people can actually support.