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Bilingual Education Works, Study Finds

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Bilingual education last week won its second endorsement in 10 days from an independent panel of experts.

"Dual-language instruction improves both academic achievement and English proficiency,'' concluded a seven-member committee on bilingual education convened by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The A.S.C.D. announced the study's findings during its annual conference in New Orleans.

In a separate study released this month, a majority of experts polled by the General Accounting Office disagreed with statements by the U.S. Education Department that research findings are inconclusive about the value of native-language instruction. (See Education Week, March 18, 1987.)

The A.S.C.D.'s report, "Building an Indivisible Nation: Bilingual Education in Context,'' concludes that there is considerable evidence for the effectiveness of bilingual education.

It argues, however, that the question, "Does bilingual education work?'' is overly simplistic, and that it fails to recognize the complexity of the subject.

"Rather than emphasize research that might give insights to teachers on effective classroom practices and how they might help limited-English-proficient students,'' the report says, public debate has "expended ... much energy on research of questionable quality and validity that asks, 'Has it worked?'''

The criticism apparently refers to reviews of program-evaluation research, which the Education Department cites in arguing that the case for native-language instruction is too weak to justify mandating that approach in programs supported by federal bilingual-education grants.

Because much of that research "has been plagued by methodological problems,'' the A.S.C.D.'s panel said, "findings are equivocal'' about the comparative effectiveness of differing instructional methods for LEP students.

Research Findings

But the report, which reflects a consensus of the panelists' views, features research findings about the success of various bilingual methods in the classroom. For example, it states:

  • When bilingual instruction lays "a strong foundation in the native language, [it] makes learning a second language both easier and faster.'' Students in such programs often, it says, learn more English than those in English-only programs.
  • Literacy skills and academic knowledge "transfer readily from one language to another, so that students do not have to relearn in a second language what they have already learned in a first.''
  • There are cumulative benefits of bilingual instruction: "The longer students remain in a bilingual program, the higher their academic achievement, as measured in English, is likely to be. Studies of native speakers of Spanish and Navajo show that students who remain in a bilingual program for five or six years may reach or exceed national norms in achievement.''

Structured Immersion

The A.S.C.D. report contains virtually no discussion of "structured immersion,'' an English-only approach that has been promoted as an alternative to bilingual education.

Research on immersion programs for language-minority students has been limited. The Education Department's contention that this method "shows great promise'' was disputed by the G.A.O.'s study.

"School authorities should be aware of the larger social issues in which the [bilingual-education] controversy is enmeshed,'' the A.S.C.D.'s panel said, noting that the assimilation of new immigrants and the preservation of minority languages and cultures are highly charged political issues.

Educators should "refuse to let emotional arguments dictate instruction,'' the panel said, while bringing to language-minority students "the same concern for individuality and unique potential that they bring to other youngsters.''

In addition, they wrote, "programs for LEP students should be an integral part of the school in terms of curriculum, instructional design, staff development, and supervision.''

The A.S.C.D.'s panel was headed by Jack Levy, professor of education at George Mason University. It also included: Diane G. Berreth, director of field services for the A.S.C.D.; Esther Eisenhower, bilingual coordinator for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools; Edward Fuentes, director of research and evaluation for the Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs; Gonzalo Garza, associate superintendent of the Austin, Tex., public schools; Kenji Hakuta, associate professor of psychology at Yale University; and Muriel Saville Troike, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois.

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