English-Language Learners

Bilingual Education Column

February 12, 1992 4 min read
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As more than 5,000 educators gathered in Albuquerque, N.M., last month for the annual conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education, the prospects for their primary cause--instruction in a child’s native language--looked as bright as they have at any time in recent years.

Paul E. Martinez, the president of NABE, gave a speech describing bilingual education as “alive, well, thriving, and on the move.”

“NABE has had bad years, and those bad years are gone,” Mr. Martinez said, in an apparent reference to the political and pedagogical controversies that surrounded bilingual education during the Reagan Administration.

The organization’s members appeared especially encouraged by a study, released a year ago by the U.S. Education Department’s office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs, which they interpreted as an endorsement of bilingual programs that encourage children to develop their native language as well as English.

In addition, the new, warmer relationship between NABE and the bilingual-education office-which had little to do with NABE during the Reagan years--was signaled by the fact that OBEMLA again held a training institute in conjunction with the conference.

Rita Esquivel, the director of the bilingual office, unveiled a newly designed flag bearing the Education Department’s seal and the words “Academic Excellence” and “Bilingual Education,” to be awarded to exemplary bilingual-education programs.

Moreover, Ms. Esquivel announced that her office would entertain public comment on several sections of the federal Bilingual Education Act before it is reauthorized in 1993. (gee Education Week, Feb. 5, 1991.)

Almost all of the aspects of the legislation under review had been the object of complaints from NABE and other advocates of bilingual education.

James J. Lyons, the executive director of NABE, said his organization should look beyond its battles for increased funding of programs authorized under Title VII of the act and focus its attention on other fronts, including higher education, Head Start, and the policies governing Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 programs.

Ms. Esquivel cautioned the members of NABE to buttress their efforts with research.

“That is the only way we are going to win,” she said. “Not with politics and not with emotions. With research.”

When Liberty lifts her lamp beside the golden door, the Education Department often is kept in the dark about influxes of children from abroad, a senior official from the office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs noted during the NABE conference.

In explaining why OBEMLA would like some of its bilingual programs to be more flexible, the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that federal policies governing the office effectively prevent it from accounting for and meeting the needs of new immigrants until long after they find their way into public schools.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service does not have a mechanism in place for warning OBEMLA when new immigrant populations enter the country, the official explained.

Local school officials sometimes know what to expect, but OBEMLA is required to ignore their enrollment projections, even when the projections “are quite good,” and to base its funding for local programs on actual language- minority student populations at the beginning of the year, the official said.

Thus, the agency often must wait until the next year to account for and fund services for children who have arrived after early autumn.

By then, the agency often has to play catch-up, having, often literally, missed the beat.

Officials at the federal bilingual office, meanwhile, often keep anxious school districts in the dark on the question of whether they have been awarded Title VII grants.

Ms. Esquivel, the agency’s director, told an audience of bilingual educators why.

Members of the Congress, Ms. Esquivel explained, want to be the bearers of good news to those districts that are awarded grants.

When OBEMLA has directly notified grant recipients, Ms. Esquivel said, the agency has gotten in trouble with members of the Congress who were angry that the agency had stolen their thunder.

Educators tend to be eager to learn whether they have won Title VII grants, because they need the federal support to establish programs for immigrants, refugees, and other children from language minorities.

When OBEMLA officials solicit policy suggestions from NABE members, One Of the most common requests is that they change the label “limited- English-proficient,” or L.E.P., which stresses the academic shortcomings of language-minority children and leads to children being called “leps.”

Alternatives suggested by NABE members at the conference included Pre-English-Proficient, or P.E.P., Two-Language Child, or T.L.C., Culturally Diverse, or C.D., and Potentially Fully Bilingual and Bi-literate, or P.F.B.B.

No one bothered to ask if the students would mind being called “peps,” “tulcs,” “cids,” or “pfubbs."--P.S.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education Column

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