'A Sense of Cultural Pride Cannot Come At the Expense of Learning English'
Following are excerpts from a Sept. 26 address by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to the Association for a Better New York:
To be a citizen is to share in something common--in common principles, common memories, and a common language in which to dicuss our common affairs. Our common language is, of course, English. And our common task is to ensure that our non-English speaking children learn this common language.
We entrust this task, in part, to our schools. We expect them, in this as in other respects, to prepare our youth to participate fully in the opportunities and challenges of American society. That is why we become so concerned when we discover that our schools are, in various ways, falling short of what we expect of them. We expect much of them--to impart basic skills, to help form character, to teach citizenship. And we expect our schools to help teach all of our students English, the common language that will enable them to participate fully in our political, economic, and social life.
Teaching non-English speaking children English is not a new task for this nation. It has been performed, with fair success, in communities across this nation since its beginning. But only in the mid-1960's did the federal government accept responsibility for assisting in this task. The timing was no accident. For America was then engaged in a peaceful revolution--our civil-rights revolution--in which the federal government stepped in to make good on the great American promise of equal opportunity for all. And this promise extends with full force to those of our children who speak no English, or little English.
How has our government done by these children? The answer, I am afraid, is not very well. But not from a lack of trying. We began with the best of intentions. We began with two legislative landmarks, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. But in both cases, after sound beginnings, federal policies went astray. In a now-familiar pattern of events, over the next two decades our policies gradually became confused as to purpose, and overbearing as to means. As a result, too many children have failed to become fluent in English, and have therefore failed to enjoy the opportunities they deserve. Now is the time to get our policies back on track; now is the time to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity so solemnly pledged 20 years ago.
That pledge is nowhere more solemnly expressed than in the 1964 Civil Rights Act: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under, any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."
The federal government set about4enforcing this provision against discrimination on the basis of national origin. And there were egregious instances of such discrimination. In some school districts in the Southwest, for example, Mexican-American children had been consigned to classes for the mentally retarded merely because of their limited English ability. In 1970, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare therefore decreed that, where minority children were being excluded from effective participation in school, a school district would be required to "take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students." The purpose of such steps was clear--to teach these students English; and schools were free to use whatever means they judged would be effective in the pursuit of this goal.
The propriety of this requirement was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1974 in Lau v. Nichols, in a suit brought by the parents of non-English speaking Chinese students in San Francisco. The Court found that the failure of the San Francisco school system to provide Englishlanguage instruction to these students denied the students a meaningful opportunity to participate in the public educational program. And the Court noted: "No specific remedy is urged upon us. Teaching English to students of Chinese ancestry is one choice. Giving instruction to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others."
Despite the Lau decision's endorsement of flexibility of approach, however, the federal government moved in another direction. In 1975, hew began to require that educational programs for non-English speaking students be conducted in large part in the student's native language, as virtually the only approved method of remedying discrimination. These regulations were never formally published, for public notice and comment; indeed when hew was sued and forced to publish them in August 1980, they aroused a storm of opposition, and they were withdrawn in February 1981. By that time, however, they had served as the basis of some 500 "compliance agreements" negotiated with school districts across the nation.
Because of their intrusiveness and heavy-handedness, these regulations came close to giving bilingual education a bad name. More important, by the time they were withdrawn, in 1981, the evidence was becoming increasingly clear that this educational method imposed from Washington was doing very little to help students learn English.
Why did the government turn down this path? Partly because of a foolish conviction that only Washington meant well and knew best. Local school districts, it was thought, could not be trusted to devise the best means, given their own circumstances, to teach their students English. But our government made this fateful turn for another reason as well. And that was that we had lost sight of the goal of learning English as key to equal education opportunity. Instead, hew increasingly emphasized bilingual education as a way of enhancing students' knowledge of their native language and culture. Bilingual education was no longer seen so much as a means to ensure that students learned English, or as a transitional method until students learned English. Rather, it became an emblem of cultural pride, a means of producing a positive self-image in the student.
The history of federal funding for bilingual education tells much the same story. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided federal aid for the education of children from low-income families; this could include aid to students who needed help learning English. But Congress wished to target special funds for this purpose. In 1968, therefore, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, authorizing federal funding of "new and imaginative" programs to meet the special education needs of poor children who were educationally disadvantaged because of their inability to speak English. The design of such programs was left, in the words of the Senate committee report, "to the discretion and judgments of the local school districts to encourage both varied approaches to the problem and also special solutions for a particular problem of a given school." It was clear that the problem was the inability of many poor children to speak English; and the solution was funding for a variety of programs to teach those students English. The exact character of those programs was left to the local school districts--the only reasonable course, given the diversity of situations in the nation's schools, and the inconclusiveness of research as to the best methods of teaching English to those who do not speak it at home.
But despite this promising beginning, the Bilingual Education Act evolved into an act whose purposes were less clear and whose programs were more restrictive. When the Act was reauthorized in 1974, Congress curbed local control over program design, and prescribed education in the student's native language as the sole method local school districts seeking funds could use. Why this change? Not because research had established the superiority of this method to any of the other possible educational methods, methods which placed greater emphasis on instruction in English. For there was--and is--no evidence of such superiority. The change came about because the understanding of the purpose of the program changed; it was no longer the straightforward one of making sure that students acquired proficiency in English. This purpose now existed side by side with an emphasis on the importance of "instruction given with appreciation for the cultural heritage of such children."
The Bilingual Education Act was renewed again in 1978. Funding had by then increased twenty-fold; but the research findings were sobering. A four-year study of over 10,000 Hispanic students had concluded that many students in federally funded bilingual programs already knew English, and some had simply been assigned there because of Hispanic surnames; that those students who did need to learn English had shown little improvement; and that most of the programs, despite their label of ''transitional bilingual education," did not in fact lead to a transition to English competency. The director of the study told Congress: "There is not compelling evidence ... that Title VII bilingual education as presently implemented is the most appropriate approach for these students." Nonetheless, Congress made only minor changes in the law.
The Bilingual Education Act was most recently reauthorized last year. Congress had before it yet more evidence that the mandated method of instruction in the native language was no more effective than alternative methods of special instruction using English; and in some cases the mandated method was demonstrably less so. Indeed the English language skills of students in bilingual education programs seemed to be no better than the skills of those who simply remained in regular classrooms where English was spoken, without any special help. In addition, Hispanic children, the largest subgroup of the eligible population, have continued to perform educationally far below the national average. The recent news of gains by Hispanic students in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores is welcome indeed, and is a testimony to the impressive efforts of many Hispanic parents and children. Yet we cannot take these scores as a sign that all is well; the scores of Hispanics remain unacceptably below the national average; and, more important, these scores only reflect the achievement of half of all Hispanic children. For almost half of all Hispanic high-school students in the United States drop out before graduation; and of these dropouts, 40 percent never reach the 10th grade. This figure is as tragically high now as it was 20 years ago.
In response to these facts, and in response to the influx of immigrants from various parts of Asia and elsewhere, for many of whom it is practically impossible for schools to provide native language instruction, Congress last year recognized the need for programs using alternative instructional methods. These methods include "English as a Second Language" or "structured immersion," and provide special instruction in English to students of limited English proficiency. Congress did allow, in its 1984 reauthorization, for such alternative programs; but it limited funding for those programs to 4 percent of the total appropriation, leaving local school districts still very much constrained. And Congress unfortunately further backed away from a clear statement of the goal of learning English, by authorizing for first-time funding of programs designed simply to maintain student competence in the native language.
This, then, is where we stand: After 17 years of federal involvement, and after $1.7 billion of federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help--that the children who deserve our help--have benefited. And we have the testimony of an original sponsor of the Bilingual Educa4
tion Act, Congressman James H. Scheuer of New York, that the Bilingual Education Act's "original purposes were perverted and politicized"; that instead of helping students learn English, "the English has been sort of thinned out and stretched out and in many cases banished into the mists and all of the courses tended to be taught in Spanish. That was not the original intent of the program."
What then are we to do? Give up on the promise of equal educational opportunity for those of our children who are not proficient in English? Our sense of what we owe our fellow Americans will not permit this. Continue down the same failed path on which we have been traveling? This is an equally bankrupt course. We ought to do more for our fellow citizens than throw good money after bad; and we ought to offer more than increasingly hollow protestations of concern and gestures of solidarity.
We intend to make good on the promise of real equal educational opportunity for all Americans. We shall therefore explore with Congress the possibility of removing the 4 percent cap on alternative instructional methods, as well as other legislative changes; and we shall move, through regulatory and administrative changes, to allow greater flexibility for local school districts. And we shall take care, in the course of ensuring that the civil rights of minority national-origin students are respected, that we do not impose a particular method of instruction. These reforms will allow local school districts to choose the sort of program, or to design the combination of programs, best suited to their particular needs: School districts serving recent immigrants who speak 70 different languages may after all need different sorts of programs from school districts whose students speak only two languages.
Let me be clear: We do not intend to prescribe one method or another. Many school districts will undoubtedly continue to pursue programs with some instruction in the native language; in some circumstances, these can be very useful in helping students keep up with their classwork until they become fluent in English. We do not intend to prescribe one method or another. But the goal of any method should be clear: fluency in English. As President Reagan has said, "...bilingual programs should serve as a bridge to full participation in the American mainstream. They should never segregate non-English speaking students in a way that will make it harder, not easier, for them to succeed in life."
Our movement away from exclusive reliance on one method, and our endorsement of local flexibility, should not be mistaken for a return to the old days of sink or swim. Many children in earlier generations learned English in such circumstances; but some did not, and at times the cost was high. We intend to enforce the requirement that school districts provide equal opportunity for students deficient in English, by providing programs that address their need; and we intend to continue funding programs that address the needs of school children who need to learn English or to improve their English. But we believe that local flexibility will serve the needs of these students far more effectively than intrusive federal regulation.