Is dual-immersion the best way to teach English learners?

With bilingual education once again in the news (“To Bring Back Bilingual Ed, California Needs Teachers,” Education Next, Summer 2019), it’s important to remember that public schools in this country have never been especially effective in teaching English to non-native students.  As Irving Howe explained in World Of Our Fathers, New York City schools, which were inundated with immigrants in 1905, “did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help.”

I think the same thing will happen today.  California is a case in point because it has become the principal point of entry for immigrants.  The question is how best to teach English to newcomers to these shores.  Voters overwhelmingly endorsed bilingual education in 2016 after having decisively rejected it in 1998.  The preferred model today is dual-immersion, which involves teaching students in two languages.  Whether this practice is superior to traditional models is still open to debate.  For example, Joshua Hartshorne, the director of the Language Learning Laboratory at Boston College, in an interview said that “children need seven or eight years of intensive immersion to speak like a native.” He went on to explain that “nothing seems to work as well as just speaking the language all the time.”

No matter which side is right, however,there is an urgent need for teachers who are bilingually certified.  Despite bonuses in some cases of up to $10,000, districts in California are still hard pressed to find enough teachers.  As a result, the nearly 1.3 million students in the state who are classified as English learners often are taught by teachers without proper training. I submit that if bonuses were doubled, the problem would be solved.  The truth is that most districts offer stipends far lower than the widely cited $10,000.  For example, the San Francisco Unified School District offers $1,000.  That’s laughable.  Other districts are not much more generous. It’s going to take a lot more money to recruit these teachers and to retain them.  Don’t forget the retaining part.  That’s too often overlooked.

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