Officials, Educators Reach No Consensus on Research

By James Crawford — April 01, 1987 11 min read

Bilingual teaching methods, initiated 20 years ago with more good intentions than good pedagogy, today are grounded in linguistics and cognitive psychology. Practitioners can increasingly point to programs in which children are doing well--both in English and in other subjects.

No longer forced to “sink or swim,’' students in bilingual classrooms are not penalized for their limited English skills, bilingual educators say. No longer do such students inevitably fall behind, rarely to catch up with classmates. No longer are they stigmatized as slow learners because the teacher speaks another language.

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By the time limited-English-proficient children leave well-designed bilingual programs, educators say, a majority are often achieving at or near grade level, even in inner-city schools where failure was once the norm.

And yet, while research has documented some dramatic successes, even bilingual-education advocates acknowledge that the number of well-designed studies of such programs is not large. As a result, a consensus on what the research actually says about bilingual education--and how that information should be translated into policy--remains elusive.

Does It Really Work?

Notwithstanding the advances of the past decade, the terms of the policy debate have remained virtually unchanged. Skeptics still question whether native-language instruction works. Whether children are learning English or languishing in academic ghettos. Whether some students benefit, but not others. Whether school districts should have more flexibility to try experimental alternatives. And whether enhancing ethnic pride taken precedence over assimilating language-minority children into the American mainstream.

Leading these skeptics is Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who says that “researchers are today no more certain of the best method of teaching English than they were 20 years ago.’'

“Where research does not dictate one method,’' he adds, “the federal government should not dictate, either.’'

Mr. Bennett characterizes as “a failed path’’ the current requirement that, to qualify for federal aid under Title VII, schools must provide some instruction in children’s native language.

“The research shows,’' the Secretary asserts, “that other methods of instruction ... are often equally as effective as transitional bilingual education.’' He has urged the Congress to authorize unrestricted funding for such alternatives as English as a second language and “structured immersion’’ in English.

Secretary Bennett acknowledges thatsome bilingual programs work well, but he often attributes their success to non-linguistic factors: “These schools concentrate on the basics--the basics of good behavior and the basics of academic achievement.’'

“We are method-blind,’' he says. “School districts should be allowed and encouraged to use the method of instruction that they think will work best.’'

At other times, Mr. Bennett and various Education Department officials have suggested that native-language instruction can be detrimental to children. “Past federal policy has discouraged the use of English and may consequently delay development of English-language skills,’' said a department fact sheet released in fall 1985, when the Secretary launched his “bilingual-education initiative.’'

Advocates of bilingual education respond that the Education Department has systematically ignored or distorted numerous studies showing the success of bilingual programs. Jose A. Cardenas, a pioneer in the field, accuses Mr. Bennett of spreading “the Big Lie’’ that bilingual education has failed because it has not reversed high dropout rates among Hispanic students.

“There are no data to suggest the success of the structured-immersion approach,’' Mr. Cardenas says. “Though the replacement of bilingual programs by immersion programs has long been an [objective] of the Reagan Administration, scholars have never taken this recommendation seriously, due to the absence of a single study showing this method’’ is effective for LEP students in the United States.

The stakes of the research controversy are high. Secretary Bennett insists he has no intention of dismantling the program, citing his proposal to “level-fund’’ Title VII at $143 million next year in a budget that would cut most other federal aid to education.

But bilingual educators express fears that, under his policy of “greater flexibility’’ for school districts, Mr. Bennett plans to redirect most grants to support what they consider unproven English-only approaches.

Differing Objectives

The pedagogical debate has been influenced--many would say distorted--by broader political struggles over bilingualism in American society.

For some critics, the educational issues are largely irrelevant. Advocacy groups such as U.S. English argue that bilingual instruction--indeed, any public services in languages other than English--can postpone the assimilation of new immigrants and promote social and political divisiveness.

But even the educational strands of the debate are difficult to untangle. The two sides approach the issues with fundamentally different questions, different uses of research evidence, and different studies to support their views.

For the Education Department, the principal question about programs for LEP children is how quickly and effectively they teach English, thus enabling the students to enter mainstream classrooms.

When the department proposed new regulations for Title VII grants in November 1985, it called for native-language instruction “only to the extent necessary’’ to teach English. The proposal did not mention the program’s second statutory objective: to help children “meet grade-promotion and graduation standards.’'

By contrast, most researchers and practitioners in the field judge programs on how they promote all-around cognitive development. For these educators, the speed of English acquisition matters less than its quality--whether children have a solid linguistic foundation for school success. And research indicates that “cognitive-academic language proficiency’’ takes children longer to develop than conversational English skills.

“The only thing that counts in education is the long term,’' says Stephen D. Krashen, a leading theorist of second-language acquisition. “We’re not interested in what kids do at the end of the 1st grade. We’re interested in their long-term chances of success.’'

Pragmatists vs. Theorists

Secretary Bennett and other skeptics about the benefits of bilingual education advance a pragmatic line of argument, insisting that “the method’’ must be judged by its results in practice.

Therefore, they put their emphasis on program evaluations that compare transitional bilingual education with English-only approaches, focusing in particular on student scores in English reading and language arts. They rely on “reviews of the literature’’ that collect studies, discard those deemed scientifically unsound, and essentially “count the votes’’ for or against bilingual education.

Kenji Hakuta, a Yale University psychologist, draws a distinction between this type of “evaluation research’’ and “basic research’’ in the field.

He argues that “evaluation studies are doing a poor job of measuring’’ the benefits of bilingual education for a variety of reasons: program diversity, inherent “conceptual and technical problems’’ in designing evaluations, and sloppy research practices. For example, he says, some studies have biased outcomes by including “graduates’’ of bilingual education in English-only comparison groups.

On the other hand, Mr. Hakuta says, basic research has not only established the validity of bilingual approaches, but also has provided assistance to educators in perfecting curriculum and methodology.

While program evaluations have provided a rich source of empirical evidence for basic research, he and others note, the data are used in a fundamentally different way than in evaluation research.

Instead of quantifying overall results, basic research focuses on theoretical questions about why LEP children succeed or fail in school. It uses empirical data to confirm or reject hypotheses that explain how a second language is acquired; how the process is affected by such factors as age, minority social status, and native-language skills; and how linguistic development interacts with cognitive development.

Rather than waiting for the perfect evaluation study, Mr. Hakuta argues, federal policy should heed the findings of basic research, which point, he says, to the superiority of approaches that build on LEP children’s native-language skills.

But, thus far, Education Department officials have seldom strayed from the terrain of evaluation studies, where evidence for the effectiveness of bilingual education has been more ambiguous.

They have relied heavily on reviews of literature in the field, beginning in the late 1970’s, that have concluded there are no significant differences in LEP student achievement between bilingual programs and other approaches, including “submersion’’ in English.

Of these reviews, the most significant and extensive was conducted in 1981 by two Education Department researchers, Keith A. Baker and Adriana A. de Kanter. The authors examined more than 300 studies, but disqualified 90 percent of them for methodological flaws.

After analyzing those that remained, the researchers concluded: “The case for the effectiveness of transitional bilingual education is so weak that exclusive reliance on this instructional method is clearly not justified. Too little is known about the problems of educating language minorities to prescribe a specific remedy at the federal level. ... Each school district should decide what type of special program is most appropriate for its own unique setting.’'

Most independent reviews of the literature have reached similar conclusions. One significant exception--a statistical re-examination of the Baker-de Kanter study by Ann C. Willig, an educational psychologist now at the University of Texas, casts significant doubts on the 1981 review’s findings.

‘Burden of Proof’

The Education Department’s official agnosticism on the effectiveness of bilingual education was summed up recently by Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

“The logical test underlying scientific research is the question of rejection of the null hypothesis,’' Mr. Finn writes. “That is to say, the burden of proof rests on those who assert that some effect or event occurs.’'

“Thus,’' he reasons, “it is not incumbent on the Department of Education to prove that transitional bilingual education is ineffective. Rather, the burden of proof is on those who assert that such education is effective. When results are inconclusive, the correct scientific conclusion is to accept the null hypothesis, i.e., to conclude that those who assert effectiveness have failed to prove their claims.’'

Supporters of bilingual education respond that empirical proof of universal effectiveness--with every child, from every background, in every school--is a standard that few other educational disciplines are asked to meet.

“The level of evidence demanded is extraordinary,’' says Mr. Krashen, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California. “It’s hard to do the perfect experiment,’' he adds, conceding that “some of the study designs have been awful.’'

“But the results are very consistent over hundreds of studies,’' he says, favoring the hypothesis that “bilingual education works.’'

Basic Research

For the most part, the hypotheses advanced by Mr. Krashen and other basic researchers are more specific. Mr. Hakuta summarizes several that have relevance for federal policy on bilingual education:

  • The “sense of urgency in introducing English to non-English-speaking children and concern about postponing children’s exit from bilingual programs’’ are misplaced, he notes, because early childhood is not the optimum age to pick up a second language. While this process--at any age--"is likely to be very slow, teen-agers and adults are much more efficient learners than elementary-school children, and 4th to 7th graders are faster than 1st to 3rd graders.’'

  • “Language is not a unified skill, but a complex configuration of abilities. ... Language used for conversational purposes is quite different from language used for school learning, and the former develops earlier than the latter.’'

  • Because of the transferability of linguistic skills, “time spent learning in the native language ... is not time lost in developing English.’' In fact, over the long term, a child with a strong foundation in his first language will perform better in English.

  • Research on literacy indicates that “reading should be taught in the native language, particularly for children who, on other grounds, run the risk of reading failure. Reading skills acquired in the native language will transfer readily and quickly to English, and will result in higher ultimate reading achievement in English.’'

  • “There is no cognitive cost in the development of bilingualism in children. Very possibly, bilingualism enhances children’s thinking skills.’'

Mr. Krashen notes that none of these research findings has been “proven’’ in any final sense. “All scientific hypotheses are fragile,’' he says. One bit of contradictory evidence can destroy them. But we owe it to the kids to use [bilingual instruction] because it’s our best guess as to what works best. I can’t imagine any other way.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as Officials, Educators Reach No Consensus on Research