Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dr. Petrosino- Reflections on a Dual Language Program

On the evening of Tuesday February 10, the Board of Education voted against a proposal (4-3) to implement a dual language immersion program for the Hoboken School District by September, 2009.

In my opinion, a dual language program where literacy and content are taught in two languages would have been an exciting and educationally sound option for a significant number of children and their families in the City of Hoboken. Such a program would have started in kindergarten and extend into middle school similar to other dual language programs in the state and country. This program aimed for bilingualism (the ability to speak fluently in two languages), biliteracy (the ability to read and write in two languages), academic achievement equal to that of students in non-dual language programs, and cross-cultural competence.

Why Spanish?
Participation would have been voluntary and would have occurred in Spanish. Spanish was chosen for a number of reasons including (but not limited to) the fact that 400 million people speak Spanish as a native language, making it the world's second (or third) most spoken language, depending on the sources. Spanish is growing increasingly popular as a second or third language in a number of countries due to logistical, economic, and touristic interest towards the many nations which chiefly use Spanish as the primary language. This phenomenon is most notable in Brazil, the United States, Italy, France, Portugal, and much of the Anglosphere in general. The role of Spanish in the ethnic fabric of the City of Hoboken and the relative ease of availability of highly qualified teachers in the area.

Surveying Community Interest
The Hola proposal was a well researched, well designed, well vetted program. Jennifer Hindman Sargent and Camille Korschun Bustillo put together an Advisory Board that had expertise in research and development, academic scholarship, and district level education at the administrative and teaching levels. They held public meetings and did an exemplary job of informing the community. They used a stratified distributed sampling technique to get a reasonable estimate of community interest for such a program. What does this mean? When sub-populations vary considerably, it is advantageous to sample each subpopulation independently. Stratification is the process of grouping members of the population into relatively homogeneous subgroups before sampling. There are some advantages and disadvantages to using this technique. In my professional opinion, the advantages (focuses on important subpopulations and ignores irrelevant ones, allows use of different sampling techniques for different subpopulations, improves the accuracy of estimation, efficient in terms of cost and effort) outweighed the disadvantages (difficult to select relevant stratification variables, expense, requires accurate information about the population. I have chaired about 6 PhD dissertations and have served on the dissertation committee of a couple of dozen other defenses in the social sciences. The sampling and survey techniques used by the Hola group were more than satisfactory for criteria that I would characterize as a quality research project at a Tier 1 research university in the social sciences. Moreover, it was and continues to be my opinion that the results were reliable. When you sample a population, you do not need to ask each and every member to take a survey. To be sure, the process of polling/surveying is often mysterious, particularly to those who do not see how the views of 1,000 people can represent those of hundreds of millions as it does daily with “Gallup Polls”. Hola’s survey was obviously not as sophisticated as an agency that has millions of dollars and hundreds of psychometricians at their disposal, but in my opinion it was done with rigor, quality and integrity.

Initial Meetings
I have been meeting with them since May of 2008 and my professional respect for them as thoughtful and reflective individuals who turned their interests and passion into a viable and tangible roadmap for district implementation has only grown. I met with them for the first time at Connors School and was impressed (I encourage those of you interested to read the past posts on the Hola program on this blog). Contrary to some opinions, Ms. Sargent, Ms. Bustillo and I were not always in agreement. I thought each meeting would be our last for at least the first 2 or 3 meetings but after each meeting -when I would ask them to either get some additional data or provide some additional articulation of their plan- they came back with double and triple the quantity and quality of effort that I would have hesitated to expect from my most valued colleagues.

A Vision and the Forging of a Partnership
They had a vision of what they wanted--certainly. But they were willing to work within the constraints and limitations of our district. They compromised on their original vision but never on their ideals or principals. They set the bar high on private citizen- public school professional interaction. Ms. Sargent and Ms. Bustillo summarized the existing literature by writing original text; they gathered, analyzed, and presented original data; they met with and put together an expert advisory board; they knocked on doors, attended meetings, and handed out pamphlets. I reiterate, they set the bar high for another group to present the district with as thoughtful and articulate plan. They put together a proposal that a Director from the New Jersey Department of Education in World Languages told me personally they read "cover to cover" and found to be thoughtful and well done and wished the administration good luck in moving forward and even suggested possible funding sources although was also quick to point out the comparative low cost of implementation.

Dual Language and the Revised Curriculum
A dual language immersion program would have not been problematic in the least with the curriculum revision project I’m currently overseeing. The reason is simply that the curriculum outlines the content, scope and sequence of instruction- what language it is delivered in is not problematic. A good curriculum, whether it is delivered in English, Spanish, German, Arabic, Hebrew, or any other language is not inherently “better” in one language than another. I do not mean to be flippant about this concern. I just do not think it was problematic. Furthermore, Hola met with World Language teachers on a number of occasions during my curriculum development sessions and their was wonderful interaction between everyone concerned.

District Planning for Implementing Dual Language and other Programs
Would a dual language program have been unproblematic to enact? Certainly not. Would there have been challenges? Certainly. However, it is my opinion that the problems remaining to be solved were implementation challenges and to a large degree, implementation problems are only fully addressed once a program is approved and the implementation process begins. There are some resources you simply cannot leverage until formal approval is granted. The district was allocating almost 10 months to address implementation independent of the previous 7 months of talks and discussions. That’s almost a year and a half from initial contact to possible 1st day of class. In my opinion, we were conducting due diligence. I feel confident we would have been in good position to implement the program in accordance to all State of New Jersey regulations.

For instance, we implemented Tools of the Mind within 8-9 months, Read 180 with 3 months, LitLife with 2 months, SRI with about 8 months of planning respectfully. Each had varying degrees of initial implementation problems and each were more than adequately addressed in my opinion. And, to be honest, problems still arise. This is the nature of program implementation- it exists in a dynamic, real time, controlled but sometimes unpredictable environment. Part of my professional background is the training and qualifications to gather the proper resources to problem solve these programatic challenges. While not overseeing the dual language program directly (as the lead administrator for instance), my responsibilities to the district oversee all curricula and instructional matters. Hola would have been ultimately under my oversight.

Dual Language and the PreK-12 Arc of Curriculum and Instructional Plans
Personally and candidly, I think it would be a challenge for anyone to find a program proposed or implemented in this district in the past decade that had any MORE planning and preparation behind it than Hola. I do not feel that Hola was a mistake, ill-conceived, unprepared, too expensive, irresponsible or would have diverted resources or attention from any of the district’s students. Waiting for all schools to make AYP before implementing such a program is short sighted and negates the fundamental position that a dual language program actually increases literacy and would have been part of a long term systemic approach to addressing quality instruction and ultimately test scores. A district must have short and long terms goals and must pay attention to the entire PreK-12 arc of curriculum and instruction rather than any isolated portion. All must work in synergy. Hola was intended as a foundational long term systemic program and fit into that arc.

My Scholarly Interest and My District Administrator Failure
I find the interest Hola stirred, the dialogue it produced, the media coverage it received and the debates it generated as incredibility interesting as an academic and professor interested in public policy and curriculum reform. Kliebard in his classic book "The Struggle for the American Curriculum" (used in our curriculum project) identifies four relatively stable and distinct “interest groups” that have competed for over nine decades for control of the schools through the curriculum. The Hola debate (for the most part) pitted Social efficiency supporters and Social meliorists against each other. These groups have fundamental and perhaps even irreconceivable differences when it comes to educational philosophy. Throw in other local factors such as the deepening recession, political uncertainly, and a community struggling with residual impacts of gentrification and resulting income disparity and one simply cannot divorce the Hola debate from a particular time and place. But as a district administrator I cannot help but feel a sense of failure at my own inability to make the proper curricula and instructional arguments that would have given each Board of Education member as well as every parent and community member the confidence and optimism I had for this program. Of course, people are free to disagree and a good number of citizens and Board members did. Opposition to the dual language program was organized, motivated, and articulate. The results are clear and the proposal for a dual language program in September, 2009 has been decided. 

To Ms. Sargent and Ms. Bustillo and the numerous colleagues, community, and family members that expended great personal and professional effort to create this unique partnership- I sincerely thank you and hope you find some consolation in establishing a new model by which public-private partnerships may be forged in the future as we collectively address vital district instructional and curricula issues. I consider you both professional colleagues and have no doubt in the expertise you have acquired in becoming strong advocates for dual language education, implementation, and acquisition.

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