English-Language Learners

Bilingual Education

January 23, 1991 4 min read

Language-minority children who are taught English in preschool tend to use their native language less at home, and their families are disrupted as a result, asserts a study by the National Association for Bilingual Education of about 1,100 language-minority families from various ethnic groups.

Lily Wong Fillmore, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, presented conclusions from the study at nabe’s annual conference, which was held in Washington this month. The meeting focused on issues related to the prevention of native-language loss in early childhood.

Ms. Wong declined to release statistical data from the study pending a final analysis of its results. But, she added, she did not expect to alter her finding of “striking differences” between 800 families whose children participated in preschool programs conducted partly or entirely in English and 300 families whose children received only native-language instruction.

According to a press release issued by Ms. Wong, a preliminary examination of the data gathered by nabe volunteers found that language-minority children who are exposed to English in preschool experience a “substantial erosion” of their native-language ability and have difficulty communicating with their parents.

But preschoolers taught only in their home language had “significantly less disturbance of communication patterns,” the release said. Ms. Wong noted that the disruption of families appears to be much less severe when children are not taught English until elementary school.

Interviewed at the conference, Rita Esquivel, director of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs for the U.S. Education Department, took the position that the primary language of language-minority children should be used in early-childhood education. Whether English is taught in addition to that, she said, “should be a local decision.”

Ms. Esquivel, who was honored at the nabe conference and is widely seen as an ally by bilingual-education advocates, for the second year scheduled a management-training institute sponsored by her office to coincide with the organization’s annual meeting.

Ms. Esquivel opened the training institute with what she later called her “crack-the-whip speech.” She told the school officials in attendance that they would have to work much harder to demonstrate the effectiveness of federally funded local bilingual-education programs if they hope to see the Congress maintain or increase funding levels when reauthorization of the Bilingual Education Act--Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act--comes up in 1993.

Ms. Esquivel noted that only 11 percent of local Title VII project directors have been submitting fifth-year evaluations of their projects to obemla, as required by law. “How do you expect me to get money from Congress?” she asked. “It isn’t going to happen.”

Ms. Esquivel urged school officials to build Congressional support for bilingual education by inviting government officials, especially U.S. senators, and members of the media to tour bilingual programs.

Ms. Esquivel added that she was sorry to see Lauro F. Cavazos leave his post as secretary of education. “Contrary to the perceptions of some in the field, we made progress during his tenure,” she said, recalling that she could count on Mr. Cavazos’s support for developmental bilingual education and other programs.

Although she was the highest-ranking federal official to address the nabe conference, Ms. Esquivel was overshadowed for a time by an address by the First Lady, Barbara Bush.

Mrs. Bush received enthusiastic applause for a speech that called bilingualism “a great gift that should be treated with respect and care’’ and said “the respect can and should be found in our decentralized system of education, where families--and school districts--have the right to decide for themselves how best to educate their children.”

Also speaking at the nabe conference were Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez of the New York City Schools and Superintendent William R. Anton of the Los Angeles Unified School District, who together with Superintendent Octavio Visiedo of Dade County, Fla., now put three of the nation’s four largest districts under Hispanic leadership.

James R. Vasquez, superintendent of the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio, announced at the conference that he was seeking to create a national organization of Hispanic school superintendents.

Mr. Vasquez noted last week that a statewide Hispanic superintendents’ organization already exists in California. He said he has invited superintendents from Texas and California to come to San Antonio in March to establish a national organization that would focus on issues related to Hispanic education.

Hispanics at the conference were urged to seek leadership positions in their districts.

“There is a white flight in those superintendencies in larger cities in this country,” said Robert Aguilar, superintendent of the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District in Norwalk, Calif. “Someone has to be ready to replace those persons."--ps

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education

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