English-Language Learners

Advisory Commission On Bilingual Program Attacks US Studies

By Susan G. Foster — December 21, 1981 5 min read
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A collection of studies commissioned by the Education Department (ed) and made public as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request was denounced by members of the National Advisory Council on Bilingual Education (nacbe) during their meeting in Washington last week.

Negative Effects

And, alarmed by what the members view as the negative effects of the widespread publicity given the studies’ findings debunking the effectiveness of bilingual education, the advisory council formally asked Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell both to clarify ed’s position concerning the studies and to direct the inspector general’s office of the department to “look at how the reports came to be.”

The action was sparked by a lobbyist’s disclosure at the meeting of two pending events that nacbe members found “disturbing": a letter indicating that Senator Walter D. Huddleston, Democrat of Kentucky, intends to introduce a bill in Congress that would limit the scope of the bilingual-education program; and a confidential memorandum revealing plans by the Office of Management and Budget to cut funding to less than half of last year’s level for 1983.

The controversial studies were begun under the Carter Administration to assist the Education Department in its review of proposed language-minority regulations--the now-infamous Lau regulations--that were promulgated in August 1980 in response to a 1978 court order that mandated specific guidelines for educating language-minority children. The regulations were withdrawn early this year by Secretary Bell.

Studies Conducted

The studies were conducted by private contractors and by staff members of ed’s office of planning, budget, and evaluation. At least one of the studies was, according to its authors, intended for use only by department officials.

But the studies, drafts of which had been circulating privately in Washington, were obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act in September and subsequently introduced as evidence by lawyers for the state of Texas, which is appealing a federal judge’s order mandating bilingual-education programs through the 12th grade in Texas schools. The presiding judge in that case, however, ruled the documents inadmissible as evidence, according to a Texas school official.

Since then, although proponents of bilingual education from two offices within ed--the Office for Civil Rights and the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs--are said to have been critical of the studies and have urged that they be “buried,” the studies have been widely reviewed and quoted.

Effectiveness Studied

The studies examined the effectiveness of bilingual education, the number of children served, the availability of teachers, the socio-economic factors affecting learning, and the costs connected with the bilingual-education program.

A summary of the studies recommended a reconsideration of federal policy for “language-minority” students.

One of the studies, “Effectiveness of Bilingual Education: A Review of the Literature,” questions “federal policy promoting transitional bilin-gual education without adequate evidence of its effectiveness.’'

In the transitional method, limited-English-proficient students are taught subjects in their native language until they are able to participate in classes taught in English. The study, however, concludes that the “structured immersion” method, in which bilingual teachers are used but instruction is given in English, should be given more attention in program development.

‘Policy-Making Process’

The study was written by ed researchers Keith A. Baker and Adriana A. de Kanter for the “internal policy-making process,” according to Mr. Baker.

There have been persistent “attempts to have the report buried,” Mr. Baker said. He said most of the criticism has been politically motivated by a “bunch of people who view the program as the government’s special gift.”

“They begin with the premise that bilingual education is effective and it works,” Mr. Baker said. “They get offended when someone comes along who says it may not work.”

After reviewing 300 research studies of bilingual programs, the Baker-de Kanter study accepted only 28 case studies that were “methodologically applicable for our concerns.” Their study admits in its conclusions that “schools can improve the achievement of language-minority children through special programs.” But it also concludes that, “There is no justification for assuming that it is necessary to teach ... subjects in the native tongue in order for the language-minority child to make satisfactory progress in school.”

A second report written by staff members within ed and entitled “Size of the Eligible Language-Minority Population,” asserts that only about one-third of the estimated 3.6 million children that experts claim need bilingual education actually do need it.

Although department officials are currently working to determine a new Administration policy for bilingual education, a department spokesman questioned recently did not know whether the bilingual studies were being used as a resource.

Heavy Local Control

The spokesman added that the Reagan Administration--unlike the Carter Administration--is likely to decide on a bilingual education policy that relies heavily on local control.

That statement is supported by some of the language in the omb document, which spells out the budget office’s plans for the program in 1983.

The proposal would cut funding for bilingual education from $157.5 million in 1981 to $71.6 million in 1983. It would also reduce by more than one-half the number of children who could be served by the program--from 269,357 to 123,195.

Definition Change

In addition, the document states, “We are also proposing to change the statutory definition of bilingual education programs. Districts will be encouraged to develop a program responsive to the perceived needs of district children instead of tailoring their program to a federally imposed model.”

During their meeting last week, members of the advisory council expressed concern that the studies’ negative findings were undermining current bilingual-education programs, and they agreed to hold public hearings next month to collect testimony that would counteract the studies’ impact.

Russell N. Campbell of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington and a member of the advisory council, said the studies are not only “biased” but “malicious” in their intent.

A version of this article appeared in the December 21, 1981 edition of Education Week as Advisory Commission On Bilingual Program Attacks US Studies


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