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Bilingual Educators Challenge E.D.'s 'English Only' Proposal

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DENVER--For most bilingual educators, it was the first chance to challenge an official of the U.S. Education Department on its campaign to expand federal funding for "English only'' teaching methodologies.

For Carol Pendas Whitten, director of the office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs, it was a heated policy debate that turned personal.

The confrontation, which had been brewing for the past 18 months, erupted here earlier this month, at the 16th annual convention of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

After addressing the group, Ms. Whitten stormed out of a question-and-answer session in which speakers voiced near-unanimous disapproval of the department's policies on bilingual education.

"I thought I was addressing a professional organization, instead of a political-action committee,'' Ms. Whitten said, visibly angered as she left the podium shortly before the session was scheduled to end.

In her speech, Ms. Whitten maintained that, "despite allegations to the contrary,'' the department's intention is not to mount an "attack on bilingual education ... [or] to promote one method of instruction over another.''

Rather, she said, its goal is "increased flexibility'' for local school districts to decide what method is best for instructing limited-English-proficient children.

"We should recognize that there is no one best method of instruction, for all children, under all circumstances,'' she said.

But members of the audience rose to rebut Ms. Whitten's assertions. "Local control sounds like basic democracy,'' said Bob Peterson, a 5th-grade bilingual teacher from Milwaukee, "but [sometimes] local control has meant the perpetuation of a racist and segregationist system.''

"This is why people in the civil-rights movement and people who support bilingual education have had to force the federal government to issue regulations to ensure that minority populations have their rights guaranteed,'' he said.

Immersion Debate

Other speakers disputed Ms. Whitten's position that English-only programs, such as "structured immersion,'' can be at least as effective as bilingual instruction. Angel Gonzales, an administrator in the Houston Independent School District, said experimental English-immersion programs in his district "just produce English-speaking illiterates.''

"A majority of the [immersion] youngsters have been retained for two or more years,'' he added, "and the bilingual children are scoring better in the 4th and 5th grades on English tests. But the biggest problem is that most of [the immersion students] are exiting to special education.''

Ms. Whitten and other OBEMLA officials who promote immersion "are not educators,'' Mr. Gonzalez said in an interview. "All they care about is that the children learn English. They don't understand there's a difference between learning a language and learning. These are two different issues.''

English-immersion projects in eight Texas districts, including Houston, were launched in 1981 by the Texas Education Agency as an experiment in alternatives to bilingual education. But the project will be terminated this spring, according to Ramon Magallanes of the agency's special-programs office.

The state's commissioner of education, William Kirby, recently informed participating districts that they must now comply with a state law requiring bilingual classrooms in schools that enroll 20 or more LEP children from the same language group.

Preliminary reports indicate that some "recent-arrival students,'' who had well-developed skills in their native languages, benefited from the English-only approaches at the high-school level, Mr. Magallanes said.

But the alternative programs appeared to be a failure for elementary students, he reported, according to test results from several districts.

In Houston, for example, the English-immersion children who scored highest were often among the 60 percent who had been retained in grade. Mr. Magallanes added that some districts dropped out of the pilot project after they saw how poorly students were faring.

Ms. Whitten said more conclusive evidence about immersion will be available in two years, following the completion of a federally financed longitudinal study comparing immersion with bilingual instruction.

The study's first-year scores, leaked to the press last year, indicated that children in bilingual programs were significantly outperforming immersion students on achievement tests in English. (See Education Week, April 23, 1986.)

Alan Ginsburg, an official in the department's office of planning, budget, and evaluation, said the second-year test data would be released within the next two weeks.

Rancorous Relations

Ms. Whitten's assurances that the department would continue to support bilingual education--even if the Congress removes funding restrictions for English-only programs--were challenged by several members of the bilingual-educators' association.

Luis Reyes, executive director of Aspira of New York, a Puerto Rican advocacy group, took issue with the suggestion by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett that bilingual education is to blame for high dropout rates among Hispanic youths.

In New York City, Mr. Reyes said, only one Latino student in four is eligible for bilingual education, and of those, only 37 percent are served. For the 12 percent of Hispanic children receiving it, he argued, "bilingual education is a dropout-prevention strategy.''

Alma Flor Aba, a professor of education at the University of San Francisco, accused Ms. Whitten of "not taking a stand'' against opponents of bilingual education within the Reagan Administration.

In Spanish, Ms. Aba quoted the Cuban patriot Jose Marti's condemnation of "the crime of silence.''

Ms. Whitten, a Cuban-American, at first appeared at a loss for words, then voiced her criticism of the organization and walked out of the auditorium.

Several members of the group said relations between the bilingual-educators' association and OBEMLA could hardly deteriorate further. They noted that, beginning this year, Ms. Whitten had changed administrative regulations to prohibit the use of bilingual-education grants to travel to conferences and training sessions not sponsored by the Education Department.

The decision appeared to reduce attendance at the association's conference this year, which registered 1,600 participants, compared with about 2,000 at its meeting last year in Chicago.

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