The Martians from Mars and the Martians from Chicago

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States vary widely in the services they provide to bilingual students. Some offer almost no bilingual assistance after the first year. Some, like Illinois, provide intensive, long-term services.

As I start this post, I realize I don’t have time to begin to do my topic justice.

Eduhonesty: Let me just make one observation: I have students who were born in this country who have been in bilingual classes their whole lives. High schools have students who have never exited bilingual programs. With those “lifers” I also have students who arrived here this year from other countries. They are all put together in the same classroom. They should not be.

The newcomers are sometimes literate in their home language. They may even be truly bi- or trilingual. A student may arrive from India who speaks English, French and Hindi, as well as bits and pieces of other Indian dialects. That student has little in common with the girl whose family came from Mexico before she was born, the girl who speaks some Spanish, more English but who can’t effectively write in either language.

Some kids seem to end up in bilingual programs because their name is Gomez, Garcia or Madhubuti. Educational administrators in Illinois would tell you that students are tested to determine whether or not they require bilingual services, but test bias can be huge in these initial screenings. Also, the test tends to be a one-shot experience. If the test-giver or test intimidates the student, the student may underperform due to anxiety and fail to make the needed mark to escape bilingual education.

Regardless, the needs of a newcomer are vastly different than the needs of a lifer. Newcomers frequently leave bilingual programs within a few years of arrival, having mastered the English they require to enter the regular student population. What should be investigated is the reason why all these other students never seem to get to the magic test number needed to exit bilingual programs. The exit test is not that difficult. If we are identifying and channelling a special set of slow learners, we ought to begin to plan a curriculum to meet the needs of this special subset. If we are somehow creating this subset, Illinois bilingual programs need to be overhauled — if not scrapped.