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G.A.O. Findings Run Counter to U.S. Education Department Views

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Critics of bilingual education have enjoyed an advantage in the debate over its effectiveness, many researchers maintain: Where scientific evidence is contradictory, the easiest position to defend--and the hardest to disprove--is that results are inconclusive.

If there is "no sound basis in research'' for favoring bilingual education, argues Chester E. Finn Jr., the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, "let us permit diversity, innovation, experimentation, and local options to flourish.''

The department's message on bilingual education has the virtues of simplicity, flexibility, and apparent even-handedness. At the same time, its position has appeal for nonexperts who have no way of sorting out the complex arguments of educational psychologists, linguists, and statisticians.

It hardly matters that evidence of bilingual-program successes continues to grow, says Stephen D. Krashen, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California. The critics, he says, demand still more proof.

Skeptical of the department's characterization of research findings, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, last spring sought help from the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The G.A.O. assembled a panel of 10 experts to review major studies and to evaluate statements by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and other department officials on issues related to the education of limited-English-proficient children.

A report on the GAO survey, released March 11, said a majority of the experts disagreed with the department on five major points. The experts concluded that:

  • "The research showed positive effects for transitional bilingual education on students' achievement of English-language competence''--a justification for maintaining the federal law's requirement for native-language instruction in most programs receiving Title VII grants.
  • "Evidence about students' learning in subjects other than English,'' although less abundant than data on second-language acquisition, also "supported the requirement for using native languages.''
  • Research provided negligible support for the promise of such alternative methods as structured immersion, an English-only strategy for teaching language-minority children. The GAO report notes that the experience of Canadian immersion programs "is not necessarily transferable to the United States, because of differences in the students' backgrounds, families, communities, schools, and cultural settings in the two countries.''
  • Claims that high dropout rates among Hispanic students reflect the failure of bilingual education had no scientific basis because of the lack of research on long-term outcomes.
  • Overall, the research was conclusive enough to indicate which specific groups of children would most benefit from native-language instruction.

In response, Mr. Finn objected strenuously to the GAO's methodology--its selection of experts, studies, and statements representing the department's views. He questioned the objectivity of the agency, a nonpartisan arm of the Congress, and argued that the votes of the panel proved nothing.

But the GAO stood by its report. It said the experts had been chosen for their diversity of views, and noted that a majority had either been recommended by the department or been cited in support of the department's position on bilingual education. In addition, the GAO said, the experts considered a broad synthesis of the research, along with extensive official statements on the issue by the department.

As part of its comments to the GAO, the department asserted that "our position on bilingual education is valid and unscathed by this inept report.''

That contention awaits the judgment of the Congress as it prepares to vote this year on whether to extend Title VII. Bilingual educators say they hope the GAO's study, by providing a platform to independent experts, will make it harder for lawmakers to ignore their successes in teaching LEP children.

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