District Officials Criticize Bennett's Call For Flexible Bilingual-Education Policy
School officials in cities with many non-English-speaking children reacted negatively last week to U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's call for more diversity in bilingual education.
In interviews, local administrators charged that Mr. Bennett's proposals could undermine their efforts and that he had characterized their programs incorrectly. Some said they believed his statement was politically motivated.
"If he's going to move away from an emphasis on transitional bilingual education, he's going back 20, 25 years," said Eduardo Cadavid, Chicago's assistant superintendent for multilingual instruction.
Researchers cautioned that available findings do not clearly show one method of bilingual instruction is more successful than others. But spokesmen for the National Association of State Boards of Education and the American Association of School Administrators praised the Secretary's proposals, as did editorials in some major newspapers.
"English is the language of the marketplace, and students with limited English proficiency should be given every opportunity to master it," commented Phyllis Blaustein, the executive director of nasbe. "We agree with Secretary Bennett that federal laws should not dictate the type of bilingual-education program that local school districts offer."
In his first major address on the subject, Mr. Bennett asserted Sept. 26 that the federal bilingual program, which mandates the use of the transitional method, had failed. He announced that he would try to lift the Congressionally imposed requirement for transitional bilingual education, in which a student learns basic skills in his native language while studying English.
But on Capitol Hill last week, key lawmakers appeared unpersuaded by the Administration's offer to trade flexibility in the program for more bilingual-education money.
Transitional Method Defended
"Obviously it's a political statement," said Dale W. Vigil, director of bilingual instruction for the Denver public schools.
"It's hard to make a blanket statement that bilingual education does not work," said Mr. Vigil, who administers a bilingual program ordered by a federal judge in Denver's long-running school-desegregation case. Moreover, he claimed, "transitional bilingual education is broad enough so that school districts have the latitude to implement many kinds of programs."
"I don't think Mr. Bennett is an expert in bilingual education," said Nathan Quinones, chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, in a press conference called a few hours after the Secretary's speech. ''Youngsters in these programs are not adversely affected. We recognize that a youngster who has gone through the system and hasn't mastered the English language is at a terrible disadvantage. Mastery of English is paramount."
Mary Esther Bernal, director of bilingual education for the San Antonio Independent School District, expressed a similar view.
"The comments by Secretary Bennett said we weren't teaching English," she said. "If he comes to San Antonio and goes into any classroom, he will see English being taught."
San Antonio's limited-English-proficient (lep) students number 9,633 out of a total of 59,000 K-12 students, Ms. Bernal said. The district has a transitional program in grades K-5, with a "double-dose" English-as-a-second-language program in grades 6-12.
A two-year comparison study of lep children in grades K-5 in district schools found that "5,000 to 6,000 children have made steady progress," Ms. Bernal said, with students in each succeeding grade level becoming "more proficient."
In the spring of 1985, the district had 1,937 lep kindergarten students, she noted, with the lep population decreasing in each class after 1st grade, to a total of 467 lep students in grade 5.
"That's why I get a little concerned over federal administrators saying bilingual education has flunked the test," she said. "If we're going to improve bilingual education, let's improve it, but it still seems to be successful with the bilingual population."
Some administrators also noted that federal funding for their bilingual programs is limited and thus Mr. Bennett's proposal to increase flexibility would have little direct impact.
"I believe it will have no significance for Dade County," said Ralph Robinett, director of bilingual- and foreign-language education for Miami schools, whose bilingual programs are primarily transitional.
Of Dade County's $21-million annual budget for bilingual education, no more than $300,000 comes from the federal Title VII bilingual account, according to Mr. Robinett.
"Philosophically, I think it's really an attempt to subvert the legislation and draw off from bilingual-education funds that were intended for its use," he said. "I think fundamentally it's an anti-bilingual posture, no matter how he says it."
For that reason, some officials said they feared Mr. Bennett's speech might send a signal to states that they can relax efforts to serve non-English-speaking students. "What the federal government does sets the pace for states," said Rose Flores Hicks, executive manager for special populations and communications for the Houston Independent School District.
Ms. Hicks noted that Houston, like Miami, gets a relatively small proportion of its bilingual-education funds from the federal government, but it is bound by a strong bilingual-education law passed by the state legislature in 1981.
Esther Eisenhower, English-as-a-second-language coordinator for the Fairfax County, Va., schools was among those who lauded Mr. Bennett's initiative. Ms. Eisenhower, who also serves on the Administration's National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education, attributed the resistance of her colleages to political pressures from local Hispanic interests.
"This issue has been emotional," she commented. "This issue has been political. This issue has been tied to ethnic pride and determination. But as far as I'm concerned it has never been a pedagogical issue. The Secretary is putting it back in the framework where it belongs."
Researchers said last week that the question raised by Mr. Bennett in his recent address--What is the relative effectiveness of methods of instructing students who lack proficiency in English?--has not yet been answered satisfactorily.
Mr. Bennett asserted that there is "no evidence" that native-language instruction is the most effective way to teach lep students English. But some researchers questioned his interpretation of the data.
"I think one has to distinguish" between "evaluative" and "basic" research, said Kenji Hakuta, a psycholinguist and an associate professor of psychology at Yale University.
Researchers' evaluations of different types of programs, such as those pointed to by Mr. Bennett, "can be fuzzy and subject to political whims," Mr. Hakuta said.
Mr. Hakuta, who studies the relationship between cognitive processes and language acquisition in bilingual students, said he would prefer that curriculum development, nationally and locally, be driven by "basic research" into how children learn languages.
James Cummins, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, noted in an interview for an Education Weekspecial report that the question Mr. Bennett posed "is more complex than can be answered with a yes or no." (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1984.)
Existing data on limited-English-proficient students show that "the causes of underachievement are complex," Mr. Cummins said. "They are not the same for all language minorities, and not all language minorities underachieve."
Lily Wong Fillmore, an associate professor in the school of education at the University of California at Berkeley, also questioned the Secretary's interpretation of data on programs for lep students.
"He's looked into the situation. What you see might lead you to conclude what he's stated," she continued. "But I think you have to look at the alternatives, and see the necessity of maintaining bilingual education as an alternative for children."
Ms. Fillmore said she believes that the "apprehension" reflected in the Secretary's speech regarding the use of native-language instruction "comes from warnings that use of native language will deter learning of English."
But in a study she recently completed of 3rd- and 5th-grade bilingual classes in five districts in the San Francisco area, she noted, native language was used "only an average of 8 percent of the time."
"There have been reports of native language being spoken one-third, or 50 percent of the time, but it's not actually true," she said.
"I know underlying it is a pedagogic concern," she said of the speech. "But it's a political statement."
At a recent news briefing, Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer said that if the Congress lifts the current restriction on the use of bilingual money--only 4 percent of the funds may be used for methods other than instruction in a student's native language--Mr. Bennett may seek a higher appropriation.
But the Republican authors of the bilingual-education compromise adopted last year expressed skepticism about the usefulness and timeliness of the offer.
Representative John McCain, Republican of Arizona, one of four who hammered out what he called a "delicate" compromise, said the Administration in fact rejected a similar deal last year: "Our opening position [in negotiations] was considerably more money for flexibility."
The other Republican co-author, Representative Steve Bartlett of Texas, pointed out in an interview that a higher budget request would automatically trigger significantly more flexibility in the program.
According to the new law, half of all the money appropriated above $140 million--and up to 10 percent of the total appropriation--can be used for methods other than transitional bilingual education. The Congress appropriated $173 million for bilingual education for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.