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Native-Language Instruction Found To Aid LEPs

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Washington--Children who are taught partly in their native language spend no more time in special classes than children taught primarily in English, are somewhat more likely to be reclassified as proficient in English, and receive more parental support, a long-awaited Education Department study on bilingual education has concluded.

The $4.4-million study, which was launched in 1983 by an Administration widely viewed as hostile to native-language instruction, apparently will bolster the position of bilingual-education advocates, observers of the field predict.

No findings have yet been officially published. But highlights of one section of the study were presented to a National Academy of Sciences panel on Oct. 12; that summary was obtained by Education Week.

The Education Department has asked the NAS to convene an expert panel to review the methodology of the controversial "immersion study," as well as that of a second study on the same topic.

The second study, which was released last spring, focused on determining what services were being offered to limited-English-proficient students, and concluded that their placement often was not based on their educational needs. (See Education Week, May 2, 1990.

The immersion study was designed to compare instructional techniques by examining about 4,000 LEP students--mostly Spanish speakers--enrolled in "late exit" bilingual programs, which aim for a gradual introduction to English; "early exit" bilingual programs, which generally use more English and are intended as short-term efforts; and "immersion" programs, in which children are taught mostly in English.

David Ramirez, a researcher who has worked on the immersion study for Aguirre International, a California-based contractor, said he will deliver the key second section--which includes analysis of students' test performance--to the Education Department next month.

Mr. Ramirez would not comment on the performance data, but sources familiar with the study said they indicate superior gains for children receiving bilingual instruction.

In a 1985 memorandum, Mr. Ramirez told the study's advisory panel that in the first year of the study, children in bilingual programs had consistently outperformed students in immersion classes on tests in reading, language arts, and mathematics. (See Education Week, April 23, 1986.

Alan Ginsburg, director of the Education Department's planning and evaluation service, said that the study is scheduled to be released in January and that he would not comment on any findings until the review process is complete.

"Until then," he said, "I'm not comfortable drawing implications from the study."

Mr. Ginsburg said some of the findings could change and also noted the importance of the as-yet-incomplete student-achievement data.

"That's what people are really waiting for," he said. "That's how you review the effectiveness of different types of programs."

Nonetheless, bilingual advocates are encouraged by the findings that have already been presented to the NAS panel.

"Without the achievement data, admittedly you don't have the whole story," said James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. "But we are very excited about this."

Study's Findings

According to the summary presented at the NAS meeting:

Children in immersion, late-exit, and early-exit programs remain in special classes for approximately the same amount of time.

"However, for the immersion and early-exit students, this pattern is not consistent with their respective instructional models," the summary says, noting that those two models call for placing students in regular classes within two or three years.

A high percentage of all LEP students are ultimately reclassified as "English proficient," and students in bilingual programs appear to be somewhat more likely to achieve that status.

The NAS document reports the most success for late-exit students and the least for early-exit children, but sources familiar with the study said those data were reported incorrectly.

By the end of the 3rd grade, they said, about three-quarters of the early-exit students had been reclassified, as had two-thirds of the immersion students and one-half of the late-exit students.

But most of the late-exit students were deemed proficient by the end of the 6th grade, the sources said, noting that those programs are not de signed to work quickly.

While the majority of each group of parents reported that they read to their children in some language, parents of bilingual-program students were more likely to report that they helped their children with homework.

"It appears that the use of Spanish for instruction by the bilingual pro grams encourages these parents to become more involved with the children's learning," the summary says.

Only 6 percent of the parents surveyed believed non-English-speaking children should be taught only in English, while 93 percent favored extra English instruction and bilingual teachers. A majority of parents involved in all three types of pro grams said they wanted their children to learn English and Spanish equally well.

"Thus," the study concludes, "it appears that the immersion strategy and early-exit programs may not reflect completely the goals of their students' parents, while late-exit programs do so."

In response to the study's conclusions on parents' views, Mr. Lyons noted, "That fits right in with the Ad ministration's focus on [parental] choice."

"The kids who have the most native-language-rich programs are the students whose parents spend the most time with them in terms of homework and support," he said. "That's something we've known all long."

Special Services Suggested

The study concludes that it apparently takes "five or more years" to learn a second language and that LEP students should get special services for that amount of time and should not be mainstreamed before the 5th grade.

The study also suggests "radical changes" in the way bilingual-education teachers are trained, noting that teachers using all three instructional strategies subject children to a "passive learning environment" and "do not provide students with optimal language learning opportunities."

However, the study found marked differences between the three strategies. While English is used from 93 percent to 99 percent of the time in immersion classes, early-exit teachers use it about two-thirds of the time in kindergarten and the 1st grade and three-fourths of the time in the 3rd grade. In late-exit programs, English is used very little in kindergarten, one-third of the time in the 1st and 2nd grades, and about half the time in the 3rd grade.

In addition, late-exit teachers are much more likely than other teachers to be fluent in students' native language and to have advanced bilingual-education training.

Questions Raised

The study was launched in 1983 amid a furious pedagogical and political debate over bilingual education, and its results have the potential to sharply influence that ongoing battle.

Reagan Administration officials repeatedly questioned the efficacy of native-language programs, and began pushing in 1983 for amendments in the Bilingual Education Act to allow funding of immersion programs. Such programs can now receive as much as 25 percent of federal bilingual-education funds.

Given such a backdrop, bilingual- education advocates have expressed suspicions from the start about the Education Department's motives in ordering the immersion study.

More recently, members of the bilingual community have questioned whether the department was delaying the study's release because the results favor bilingual instruction. Mr. Ramirez said such a reading would not be accurate.

The gathering of data was completed in 1988, and he submitted a draft in December 1989, Mr. Ramirez said. But, he continued, he found inconsistencies in the standardized-test data--which used the California Test of Basic Skills--and had to conduct further analysis on the effect of the test itself.

Mr. Ramirez said he knew of the Reagan Administration's reputation among bilingual educators and "took steps" to ensure that no bias crept into his study.

However, he said, he found department officials to be "very supportive of us doing a very thorough review. "I haven't been affected by any of that political insanity," Mr. Ramirez said.

Some bilingual-education advocates are also suspicious of the department's motives in submitting the study for review by the NAS.

Mr. Ginsburg said the department sought the NAS review because it is statistically complex and its subject is "sensitive."

"The results will be of great importance, and it's a long-debated issue," he said. "This is the surest way to get results nobody could question."

He angrily denied any intent to discredit the study, adding, "Nobody can manipulate the NAS"

Mr. Ginsburg said a review of the second study was sought because department officials think more information could be derived from the data, implying some agreement with bilingual-education experts who have argued that the $5.2-million study broke little new ground. The NAS review is projected to cost nearly $200,000.

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