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Goals 2000 And the Bilingual Student

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If language-minority children--that rapidly growing group of students entering U.S. public schools with little or no English--are to meet the national standards being drafted under Goals 2000, then a radical change in education policy and classroom instruction must be initiated promptly. For 25 years, limited-English students have been placed in "bilingual'' classrooms where instruction is given in the native language most of the school day for several years. This segregative approach has created separate and unequal education for some three million students. Yet, in the fractured logic of bilingual education, these programs are intended to help students master the English language faster and learn their school subjects better. How years of being taught mostly in Korean, Spanish, or Portuguese can produce rapid and effective learning of English is still a mystery and, in practice, an illusion.

About $5 billion over five years in special funding has been authorized by the U.S. Congress for the Goals 2000 mission: to help all students attain world-class academic standards by the turn of the century. These funds will be used to develop national standards in mathematics, science, and other subjects; for creating measurements of student performance; and to fund state and local education improvements to help our students attain or exceed the performance of students in other developed countries.

How will immigrant and refugee children and those native-born children raised in non-English-speaking families be able to reach these new standards if they are not fluent in the language of the classroom? And what special allowances will be made to insure fairness to these children, to reconcile standards with equity? The U.S. Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs is convening a series of special sessions this spring to address these questions. One of the participants, Delia Pompa, has commented with blistering irony, "I'm not sure it's O.K. for our kids to dance out something where other kids have to write on a subject to show mastery.'' (See Education Week, March 30, 1994.)

I wish to offer the following information and advice to educators who will set the guidelines for limited-English-proficient, or L.E.P., students. These students must be given the most effective special help to meet standards of performance comparable with their English-speaking classmates and, as soon as they are proficient in English, must be held to the same standards as native speakers. The controversial issue is still how to get to the necessary level of English proficiency for academic learning in English as quickly as possible. L.E.P. students are not permanently impaired or disabled but only temporarily at a disadvantage because they lack English-language skills. The duration of this language barrier can be relatively short, as in school districts where special, English-intensive programs are provided and L.E.P. students are integrated with their English-speaking classmates (Fairfax County, Va.; Berkeley and Inglewood, Calif.; Newton and Brookline, Mass.), or the process may take many more years when students are taught in their native language most of the school day and mostly separated from their English-speaking classmates.

My experience in this field spans several decades, from non-English-speaking immigrant child, to Spanish bilingual teacher, then bilingual/English-as-a-second-language program director, and to writer and researcher on the issues in this most politically controversial area of public education. While I strive to be well-informed in the theories and research, I am most concerned with the practical--what works best in helping language-minority students reach their highest potential academically, master the majority language, and be productive citizens of our country.

Recently published research studies and a few examples of new programs being provided for limited-English-proficient students serve to illustrate the magnitude of the problem, the viable solutions, and the difficulty of overcoming the entrenched bilingual-education bureaucracy. The U.S. General Accounting Office published a study in January of this year for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., on "Limited English Proficiency: A Growing and Costly Educational Challenge Facing Many School Districts.'' This report provides useful data not easily available from other sources: the dramatic 26 percent increase of immigrant students in U.S. classrooms; where these students are concentrated (California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington); and the enormous number of languages and nationalities represented (180 and counting). The five school districts studied during the 1991-92 school year enrolled students from seven to 88 different language backgrounds.

The G.A.O. report highlights specific problems common to these five districts and known to exist nationwide in schools with limited-English students:

  • Diversity of languages spoken. Although 60 percent of limited-English students are speakers of Spanish, dozens of other languages are also represented.
  • Shortage of bilingual teachers and of native-language texts in all these other languages; poor quality of Spanish-language texts; poor quality of student assessment.
  • Lack of funds to train teachers or to develop new programs.
  • A high level of transiency, which has a negative effect on students' learning.
  • Lack of parental involvement in or understanding of students' schooling.
  • The arrival of some secondary-school-age students in the United States without previous schooling in their native lands.

Basically, it must be noted, the G.A.O. study makes unwarranted assumptions:

(1) Bilingual instruction is more effective for the teaching of English and of academic subjects--nowhere proven. Even in California, which has the highest number of L.E.P. students in the country and has made the greatest efforts and spent the most money on special programs, a 1992 study concluded that "no one educational model, bilingual or nonbilingual, could be considered the most effective under all conditions.''

(2) It takes from three to eight years to become fluent enough to achieve in an all-English classroom--totally untrue. The El Paso study, the Dade County, Fla., study, the Southwest Regional Education Laboratory study, and the experience of thousands of teachers across the country tell us that students can begin to learn subject matter taught in English within a few weeks of entering U.S. schools, given a modified curriculum and trained teachers. It may take three years or longer to become a native-like speaker, reader, and writer in a second language, but mastering school subjects certainly does not need to wait for that level of English-language perfection.

(3) It would be very costly and require many years to develop an intensive English program for L.E.P. students--not at all. Compared with the costs and time needed to implement a full bilingual program which, in effect, creates a separate school within a school, alternative models require only a modest investment. The new English Acquisition Program begun last September by the Bethlehem, Pa., public schools after six months of planning and retraining of bilingual and classroom teachers is a good example. Limited-English-proficient students are now being taught through the standard school curriculum by teachers trained in the new strategies of content-based language teaching. These students are mainstreamed with their English-speaking classmates in an integrated, multiculturally inclusive program, rather than being bused to linguistically segregated schools. An elementary school in Lowell, Mass., initiated a similar change in 1991, with the entire school staff involved in developing an English-intensive program. In both instances, bilingual teachers were not dismissed but were retrained for new roles and actively involved in program development.

Why are so few new initiatives of this sort being reported across the country? There is powerful pressure on educators and policymakers to maintain the bilingual programs currently in place. Sixteen states have laws mandating only bilingual programs; federal funding for language-minority students has gone almost entirely into native-language-instruction models for 25 years; and, even where there is no state law, as in California and New York, state education agencies impose the requirement.

The power of political correctness in this matter has largely permeated even the professional organization that represents English-as-a-second-language teachers. An example of the rhetoric at the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) convention in Baltimore in March illustrates the ideology. The Swedish linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas told us that we are committing "linguistic genocide'' when we teach our immigrant students English. She urged that these children be taught only in their native language for seven to eight years to preserve their language and culture. Following a plenary address by Prof. Andrei Codrescu of Louisiana State University, the audience reaction reversed sharply from positive to negative when he said, "I want to end on a serious note. I compliment you on your wonderful work in helping immigrant students learn the language of this country. I don't believe in creating linguistic ghettos. I don't believe in bilingual education. Preserving the mother tongue is not the responsibility of the public schools but of the community.'' A few nervous titters and an uncomfortable silence made up the audience response. Mr. Codrescu was stymied until someone explained that TESOL officially endorses bilingual education and that his remarks were seen as "insensitive.''

There is, to be sure, a wide gap in the TESOL membership between the official positions taken by the leadership and the sentiments expressed by E.S.L. teachers in the individual workshops and lectures. As a member, former committee chairman, and frequent presenter, I have observed this disparity increasing in recent years as more teachers express their desire for an aggressively pro-E.S.L. stance from their own professional organization.

For intelligent planning to insure equal opportunities for limited-English students in Goals 2000, some new thinking is definitely needed. Let us not continue to promote linguistically segregated schooling in which L.E.P. students do not have access to an equal education and will not be able to meet the standards of Goals 2000.''

Let us reaffirm the belief that separate education is never equal. Bilingual teachers and textbooks cannot be made available in each of the 180 languages present in our schools (127 in the public schools of New York City). To attempt to develop separate standards and measurements in all those languages would be not only folly but an impossibility; to do so in just a few select languages would be unfair.

Let us not confuse the private freedom to use any language at home and keep any cultural traditions, which rights we all have, with the priorities and responsibilities of public education. Families or groups that choose to retain language and culture may promote after-school programs or private language schools, but such preservation cannot be a responsibility of the public schools with their limited resources and broader responsibilities.

Let us not forget the two most important principles in language learning: time on task and optimum age for second-language acquisition. The earlier that students begin to learn a second language and the more expert assistance they receive, the more rapidly and effectively they will acquire that second language for social purposes and for academic learning. There is absolutely no sound reason for delaying the learning of English.

Let us call for a set of flexible guidelines as to when L.E.P. students will be required to take tests on the national standards, considering age and level of English at entry, previous schooling in their native land, and other factors. Special consideration and extraordinary efforts must be made for the small percentage of immigrant students who have missed years of schooling in their native lands.

Let us recognize, finally, how essential it is that policymakers, educational administrators, and teachers be acutely receptive to the mighty challenge presented by the growing number of language-minority students and to the timely opportunity presented by Goals 2000 for us to set precise priorities in the education of this richly various population.

Rosalie Pedalino Porter, the acting director of the READ Institute in Washington, specializes in program development and evaluation for U.S. school districts with limited-English-proficient students.

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