Curriculum Reporter's Notebook

Advocates Note Need to Polish ‘Bilingual’ Pitch

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 31, 2006 4 min read
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Bilingual education advocates at the National Association for Bilingual Education’s annual meeting lamented that they have been unable to convince the public and policymakers that such education has an edge over English-only methods.

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They discussed—and sometimes debated—strategies they hoped would get their message out that bilingual education is good for children who are learning English as a new language, and that their position is supported by research studies. In bilingual education programs, students are taught some subjects in their native language while learning English.

“Why is it that the stronger the research support for bilingual education, we get less support from policymakers?” James Crawford, the executive director of the Washington-based NABE, said in a session about identifying strategies to reverse public opinion. About 5,500 educators attended the Jan. 18-21 conference here.

Mr. Crawford, a reporter for Education Week in the 1980s who became NABE’s top executive in 2004, cited milestones for bilingual education, such as when Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, which authorized funds for that teaching method. At that time, he said, educators implemented it through “trial and error,” but “we had tremendous support from policymakers.”

By contrast, Mr. Crawford depicted the current “accountability era,” fortified by the No Child Left Behind Act, as creating obstacles for bilingual education. “It’s not a direct attack on bilingual education. It’s more insidious,” he said, “Instead of talking about more resources and better-trained teachers, we’re talking about test scores.”

Josué M. Gonzalez, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, said proponents of bilingual education should stop trying to take their message to policymakers in Washington, and instead focus on communities and states. That approach may mean paying for bilingual programs without the help of the federal government, he noted.

“We’re going to do something good for our kids, regardless of whether you give us money, damn it,” he said.

Stephen D. Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, said he’s been trying to come up with statements about bilingual education that resonate, such as: “Bilingual education is a way of using the child’s first language to accelerate the learning of English.”

At another session, panelists debated whether NABE should stop supporting what is known as transitional bilingual education, in which students are taught some subjects in their native language but are quickly moved to all-English classes.

Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier, both professors emeritus at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., for example, have concluded that long-term programs that aim for a high level of bilingualism, rather than moving students into English as soon as possible, are the only kinds of programs that close the achievement gap between English-language learners and their native English-speaking peers.

“NABE needs to take a strong stand,” said José Ruiz-Escalante, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas-Pan American, in Edinburg, Texas. “No longer is NABE going to support remedial forms of bilingual education.”

He argued that the group should also drop support for taking students out of their regular classes for short lessons in English as a second language.

Researchers presented two national reviews of studies that concluded that bilingual education is more effective than English-only teaching methods.

One chapter of a meta-analysis, which was conducted by a group of 13 researchers called the National Literacy Panel and funded with $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Education, reaches that conclusion.

“It’s pretty clear that, on average, there’s a benefit for instruction of the primary language on English literacy,” said David Francis, a psychology professor at the University of Houston and a panel member.

Mr. Francis noted, however, that “none of the analyses tells us that either approach is doing a good job in teaching English-language learners.” The review simply shows a positive effect for bilingual education in comparison with English-only methods, he said.

The Education Department decided in August not to release the study, saying it didn’t stand up well in peer review. (“Not for Publication,” Aug. 31, 2005.)

Diane August, the principal investigator for the meta-analysis, said at the NABE conference that decision was surprising, particularly because department officials had selected members of the panel and participated in all its meetings.

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., in Mahwah, N.J., expects to publish the study in May.

Researchers from Arizona State University, Tempe, presented a second meta-analysis of 17 studies of instruction for English-language learners that also found a slight positive effect for bilingual education in comparison with English-only instruction.

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