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Researchers Urge Parental Option To Pick Instruction in English or Native Language

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Washington--Parents should have the right to decide whether their children are taught in a language other than English, several researchers argued at a bilingual-education conference held here last week.

Extending the concept of parental choice to bilingual education would offer families the option of preserving their native language, the experts suggested. But, they warned, such policies also should be crafted to avoid taking students' time away from learning English.

The conference, "Public Policy Issues in Bilingual Education," was funded by U.S. English, an advocacy group that supports making English the official language of the United States.

The group emphasized, however, that it was not involved in inviting conference participants and had no control over discussion topics.

A key theme to emerge at the conference was concern over the lack of solid research into the effectiveness of bilingual education.

"A study can be found to support virtually any position," said John Edwards of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Christine H. Rossell of Boston University, who studied bilingual programs in Berkeley, Calif., said her research showed "no difference" between the performance of students who received bilingual instruction and those who were taught in English geared to their level of understanding.

"The significant difference between the two programs occurred when Berkeley cracked down and made them teach more in the native language,'' Ms. Rossell said. "Then the English classes did better."

Ms. Rossell conducted her research on behalf of the Berkeley school system, which was being sued for providing inadequate instruction to a limited-English-proficient student. In a February ruling for the district, the judge in the case held that the plaintiffs had not proven that its programs, which emphasize alternatives to bilingual instruction, were "not pedagogically sound."

At the conference, Ms. Rossell rec4ommended that school officials offer voluntary bilingual education in grades K-12, while also extending the school day to ensure that limited-English-speaking children receive the same amount of English instruction as other students.

Herbert J. Walberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago also endorsed parental choice for language minorities. Bilingual education, he said, "has not met its promises."

Children with limited proficiency in English are often from low-income homes and typically have less opportunity to improve their listening and speaking skills than do middle-in8come children, Mr. Walberg said.

"To deny these children the maximum English in school would be an injustice," he argued.

James A. Banks of the University of Washington at Seattle agreed that the cultural environment of children in bilingual programs cannot be ignored. Students who are "disconnected" from their heritage often become confused, he argued.

"Self-understanding is a prerequisite for relating positively to other people," said Mr. Banks, who called on the nation to adopt a policy of teaching all students in both English and Spanish.

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