New Jersey residents five years or older are five times more likely to speak a non-English language at home than the national average, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Research studies over the years have suggested that bilingualism can enhance cognitive functioning. But Seton Hall University professor Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, co-director of the Center for College Readiness, says New Jersey schools aren’t doing enough to treat the diversity of languages spoken by their students as an educational asset.
Sattin-Bajaj, named by Education Week as one of the 17 next generation leaders to transform public education, said part of the issue has to do with the sheer plurality of languages spoken and the socio-economic situations present among New Jersey’s immigrant student population.
“Some immigrants come from the most highly educated and high-income families in their countries of origin, and many, especially from Mexico and many different parts of Latin America, come from the least educated segments of their society,” Sattin-Bajaj told NJ Today.
It’s a significant challenge, she said, but schools should see it as an opportunity. Sattin-Bajaj has researched extensively on the subject of immigrants in the education system, and has written on topics such as how many charter schools fail to provide effective services to non-native English speakers, and ways that the disparities in the educational system limit equal opportunities for school choice.
While many New Jersey schools are looking to other states for advice, she said, the current political environment is perhaps the greatest impediment to promoting bilingual education.
“Because bilingual education has become such a polarized issue — it has always been, but has become so wrapped up in the anti-immigrant rhetoric — I don’t necessarily think that districts are able to approach and think about how to educate bilingual students as innovatively as we would like them to,” said Sattin-Bajaj.
However, she hopes new common core standards will allow states to open up the conversation surrounding bilingualism in new ways.
Asked whether she thought three New Jersey high schools, which were ranked among the top 100 schools nationally by U.S. News and World Report, were better at promoting bilingual education classes and services than other schools, Satting-Bajaj responded:
“I’m dubious of any of these lists, especially U.S. News and World Report, because the metrics that they use are not necessarily what other folks in education would say reveal good education.”