Federal

OCR Seen as Unbiased On Bilingual Ed. Issue

By Scott W. Wright — March 07, 2001 6 min read
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The vast majority of school districts that dealt with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights during the Clinton administration do not believe its staff members favored bilingual education over English-based instruction, a federal government report shows.

As the debate has intensified over using English-immersion or bilingual education programs to teach limited-English-proficient students, the OCR, the federal office charged with ensuring that school districts meet LEP students’ needs, often has been cast as a biased guardian.

But in a report released Feb. 23, the U.S. General Accounting Office found that 77 percent of 245 districts involved in compliance agreements with the OCR from 1992 to 1998 reported that they did not feel pressured to implement a particular language-instruction approach.

For More Information

The report, Meeting the Needs of Students with Limited English Proficiency, is available from the U.S. General Accounting Office. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

That conclusion by the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, in its report “Meeting the Needs of Students With Limited English Proficiency,” drew swift and divided reaction from activists and experts on both sides of the bilingual education debate.

“In general, it clears OCR,” said Delia Pompa, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, and a former head of the Education Department’s bilingual education office during the Clinton administration. “It is a pretty resounding majority. Most districts did not feel that OCR came in to dictate a particular approach.”

Christine Rossell, a Boston University political science professor who has written extensively about programs for LEP students, challenged the survey’s finding. “That’s got to be a lie,” she charged.

Cantu’s Role

Ms. Rossell argued that Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights under the Clinton administration, was “rabidly” in favor of transitional bilingual education, in which students are taught academic subjects in their native languages while learning English.

Ms. Cantu, a former staff lawyer for the San Antonio-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, could not be reached for comment. But in a letter to the GAO to comment on the report, Ms. Cantu said that she was “gratified” by its findings.

“It is always OCR’s goal to work cooperatively with school districts to ensure that appropriate services are provided to English-language learners,” she wrote.

“I certainly read the report as a vindication of any accusations that OCR is aggressively pushing a bilingual education policy,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University professor of education who has studied instructional approaches for teaching LEP students and favors bilingual education.

“If you look at [the OCR’s] official policy memos, it is very neutral,” Mr. Hakuta said. “They have based their policies on court rulings and existing laws. What I hear from bilingual education advocates is how little OCR has done for bilingual education.”

Responses Misleading?

The GAO began studying programs for LEP students three years ago at the request of three Republican members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee after several school districts complained they felt pressured by the OCR staff members to implement bilingual education programs.

The complaining districts, including the 69,000-student Denver school system, all were being investigated by the OCR for alleged deficiencies in teaching LEP students. The districts aired their complaints at a series of hearings the House committee held on bilingual education in 1998.

The 51-page GAO report found that school officials with three districts said they felt pressured by OCR staff members to increase their emphasis on bilingual education over English-immersion or English-as-a-second-language programs, in which students are taught overwhelmingly in English.

Another 38 school districts—or 18 percent of the respondents—reported they perceived a bilingual education slant among the OCR staff members with whom they dealt. More than half of those cases involved districts handled by two OCR regional offices—Denver and San Francisco.

A spokesman for the Education Department said the OCR’s comments were incorporated into the report. He declined further comment.

Jorge E. Amselle, the vice president for education for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington group that opposes bilingual education, said the number of districts reporting that they perceived no pro-bilingual education bias among OCR staff members may be somewhat misleading.

“It doesn’t surprise me that 77 percent said they felt no pressure,” Mr. Amselle said. “Most of those districts already have bilingual education programs in place, so OCR doesn’t have to pressure them to put a program in place if they already have one. On the margin, there is clear preference for bilingual education.”

No Consensus on Timing

The GAO report also looked at two other issues regarding programs for LEP students—how long it takes for students to become proficient in English and what types of language-instruction programs districts use. But the report breaks little new ground on either front.

It concludes that “no clear consensus exists on the length of time children with limited English proficiency need to become proficient in English.” In fact, it notes that “no agreement exists about how proficiency should be defined.”

“I don’t think it’s possible to come up with a definition,” said Ms. Rossell of Boston University. “That may sound defeatist, but we don’t know how to distinguish between a child’s knowledge of English and their intellectual ability.”

The issue of how long students should spend in proficiency programs has been hotly contested. California and Arizona have curtailed bilingual education programs in favor of intensive English-immersion programs. Both states set a one-year goal for students to exit the immersion programs proficient in English.

President Bush, as part of his blueprint for improving the nation’s education system, has proposed requiring districts to teach children in English after three years. Studies show that LEP students spend from four to eight years in special language programs.

Mr. Bush’s education plan also states that “as part of their application for [federal] funds, states will set performance objectives to ensure LEP children achieve English fluency within three years.”

Ms. Pompa, with the bilingual education association, said the GAO report “points out the absurdity of the laws we now have in California and Arizona that throw LEP students into regular classes after being in a special program for just a year.”

“None of the experts cited—and they were on both sides of the debate—said you could do it in a year,” she said. “This is resounding evidence that you can’t set an arbitrary time limit for something like learning a second language.”

The GAO report concludes that the divisive political and academic battle over which instructional approach to use for LEP students and how long it should take them to achieve English proficiency has overshadowed the real issue: helping students.

“Attempts to create policy and effective curricula to help solve these problems have been hampered by the continuing controversy about which approach can better meet the needs of these children,” says the report, “and about how long special help should be given.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as OCR Seen as Unbiased On Bilingual Ed. Issue

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