Like many educators before them, teachers of native languages have voiced their frustration with a law that, while well intentioned, seems too inflexible to work across the full spectrum of the nation’s schools.
That law, No Child Left Behind, imposes requirements that, they argue, are at cross purposes with the mission of teaching languages through immersion. No school system has an indigenous language immersion program as extensive as Hawaii’s, so it was not surprising that Hawaiian leaders were front and center at a recent Washington, D.C., summit, petitioning federal officials for an exemption.
What they and teachers of Cherokee and Ojibwe want is freedom from the No Child requirements that children be tested in English and that teachers be "highly qualified."
On the first point there is some sound reasoning behind the request. Students learning to speak Hawaiian do so by being fully immersed (hence, immersion) in Hawaiian as the language of instruction. This is why language arts instruction in English isn’t introduced until the fifth grade.
So it’s understandable why Hawaiian-immersion teachers say it’s unfair for these students to be tested in English immediately after beginning their study. Those test results don’t reflect the students’ mastery of the subject matter—including math, reading comprehension and science—because their inexperience with English expression muddies the results. And these bilingual students, as they get older, have proven capable of keeping up with their peers in regular schools.
The younger grades in Hawaiian immersion programs already test in Hawaiian, because the state Department of Education got federal clearance to cover them with an exemption intended for students speaking English as a second language. Other native immersion programs have no such approval.
No Child needs more flexibility on multiple fronts, and its overhaul is overdue. But whenever the revisions finally do begin, one of the sensible changes would be to provide a testing exemption for students in all native-language immersion programs, introducing English-language testing at a later stage.
BUT THIS relaxation of the rules should only go so far. At some point students do need to develop competence with English-language examinations, a skill all will need as they move on to higher education or the workplace.
Further, providing teachers with the same "highly qualified" credentials may be difficult, but that’s no excuse for lowering the bar at these schools. Native programs need to step up training of educators so that standards of teaching are on par with those at other American schools. No child should be left behind.
Helping to perpetuate native languages in this country is a worthy goal: The story of Hawaii, in which a nearly extinguished language has been rescued from the brink, shows how effectively immersion education fuels this success. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that the fundamental purpose of schools is not to preserve a language—it’s to educate children.
The primary mission of No Child, however it’s reformed, is to hold students and teachers to standards that will equip them for the real 21st century world.
Such an achievement is the bottom line, and policymakers need to keep their eyes fixed on it.