At the Department of Education’s first summit on English-language acquisition, Secretary of Education Rod Paige tip-toed around the fierce national debate over how best to teach English to immigrant children, which led some participants to try to interpret the department’s position on the subject.
In his 15-minute speech on Nov. 13 to more than 1,600 educators who work with English-language learners, Mr. Paige never uttered the words “bilingual education” or “English immersion,” which are the names of the two methods for teaching English to immigrant children that are at the center of the debate.
Instead, he urged educators to have high expectations for all children."Learning is a civil right,” he said.
The secretary drew applause when he said, “The biggest problem we have is in the minds of men and women who teach children but don’t believe in them.”
Mr. Paige stressed that for each child to be successful in school, he or she must learn to read. He said that the focus on results rather than process in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 is intended to ensure that every child has an opportunity to learn well.
The secretary touched on approaches for teaching English-language learners only in his opening remarks by mentioning that the Bush administration has changed the name of the department’s office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs to the office of English-language acquisition.
“Our new name reflects our new mission,” he said. “The funding is based on the child—not the program. No child—not ‘no program'—is to be left behind.”
The secretary touched on bilingualism by saying that while schools need to teach children English, students also need to learn an additional language.
Some who heard Mr. Paige’s speech said the secretary should have spoken directly about educational approaches for teaching English to children, while others said he was wise to avoid the controversial subject.
Just this month, Massachusetts became the third state—after California and Arizona—to pass a ballot initiative designed to replace most bilingual education with English immersion. (“Colo. Extends Bilingual Ed., But Mass. Voters Reject It,” Nov. 13, 2002.)
Mari Rasmussen, the program director for English-language learners in North Dakota, said Mr. Paige should have taken up the issue in his speech. “If we’re going to implement No Child Left Behind, we have to look at the needs of every child, and bilingual education is an option for some children,” she said.
Glynis Terrell, the coordinator of programs for English-language learners for the Atlanta public schools, said that it was appropriate for Mr. Paige not to address the subject, saying he was right to focus on how schools must have high expectations for children instead of blaming their failure to learn on “demographics.”
She observed, “I haven’t seen a true explanation of how the Department of Education feels about bilingual education.”
Joan E. Friedenbery, a professor of bilingual education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, interpreted various aspects of the planning of the conference as efforts by the department to distance itself from bilingual education.
For example, she observed that the department decided to hold its own summit on English-language acquisition and canceled plans to provide a seminar on the education of English-language learners at the annual conference this coming January of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, as it has historically.
But Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the director of the office of English-language acquisition, said the department’s decision to stop providing a seminar in conjunction with NABE is “in no shape or form” an effort to distance itself from the organization or bilingual education.
She said Mr. Paige doesn’t object to bilingual education. But, she also said, “bilingual education is just one program to meet the goal of English acquisition. The department doesn’t present teaching of one method over another.”
—Mary Ann Zehr
A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook