English-Language Learners

Federal Studies Debunk Bilingual Education, Suggest That States Choose Teaching Methods

By Arthur E. Levine — October 05, 1981 8 min read

The federal government should stop focusing on bilingual-education programs to help non-English-speaking students because there is little evidence that those programs work.

That is the basic conclusion of a series of draft studies prepared for the Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Budget, and Evaluation (opbe) at the request of the Carter Administration, and first obtained by The Washington Post last week under the Freedom of Information Act.

Transitional Bilingual Education

The centerpiece of the federal effort to aid “language-minority” students has been transitional bilingual education (tbe), which teaches students subjects in their native language until their English is good enough to permit them to participate in classes taught in English.

But according to the summary accompanying the new studies, “Federal policy has persisted in promoting transitional bilingual education without adequate evidence of its effectiveness.”

In a review of 300 previous pieces of research on bilingual education, researchers studying the effectiveness of bilingual programs found the overwhelming majority ofearlier studies to be methodologically unsound.

The new studies also assert that only about one-third of the estimated 3.6 million children that experts claim need bilingual education actually do.

And it suggests that so-called “language-minority” students might have been better served by programs that could have been developed under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Observers say the report could have a major impact on current bilingual programs and court cases challenging them. Attorneys for the state of Texas are planning to use the studies in appealing a federal judge’s order mandating bilingual programs through the 12th grade.

The findings--and any resulting reduction in bilingual programs--might also hurt the Reagan Administration politically with Hispanic voters in such states as California, Texas, and New York, according to some commentators.

The studies were attacked last week by bilingual-education advocates, who charged that the reports were sloppy, biased, and ignored studies favorable to bilingual education. “These studies will have a devastating effect, and will unnecessarily bias people against bilingual education,” said Tracy Grayof the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.

The studies have also been criticized for similar reasons by officials in two offices within the Education Department--the Office for Civil Rights and the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs--as well as by the National Institute of Education. An early draft of one of the studies--which debunked the effectiveness of bilingual programs--was criticized by those offices this past summer. And while revisions have been made in that study since then, government officials are still critical of it, but less so than before, they say.

Excluded Research on Benefits

Their critiques also said the draft improperly excluded research that showed the benefits of bilingual education. The critiques also charged that the study was imbalanced, because it favored the “structured immersion” teaching method over others that incorporate use of a foreign-speaking child’s native tongue in varying degrees.

Although revisions were made as a result of these critiques, some government officials and bilingual-education advocates contend the bias problems remain.

The new studies, which have not been ap
proved yet by the Department of Education, challenge the fundamental assumptions of the transitional approach, and urge the use of a variety of methods to help non-English-speaking students.

The summary report of the studies says that “state and school districts should have maximum discretion to decide which type of special program is most appropriate for its unique setting.”

It also says that constraints on providing bilingual services--such as the expense and the difficulty of finding enough qualified teachers--"cannot be ignored,” and it recommends that the burden of proving a program’s effectiveness should be on the federal government rather than the states and localities.

Regulations Withdrawn

Last February, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell withdrew stiff civil-rights regulations proposed by the Carter Administration that would have mandated bilingual education programs for all school districts, at an estimated cost of $1 billion in five years.

The controversial new studies of bilingual education were launched at the request of former President Carter’s White House Regulatory Analysis and Review Group when the bilingual rules were first proposed in August 1980.

Over the last decade, the federal government has spent approximately $1 billion under the authority of Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to promote bilingual education in local school systems.

Currently, some 300,000 students in 560 school districts participate in bilingual education. In addition, 1975 guidelines issued by the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare have been interpreted as requiring some form of bilingual education. These guidelines have led the Office for Civil Rights to negotiate over 500 compliance agreements with school districts and educational institutions.

The government’s strong role in mandating special language programs grew out of a 1974 Supreme Court decision, Lau v. Nichols, which found that the San Francisco Public School District’s failure to provide special educational services to non-English-speaking Chinese students violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in any program or activity receiving federal funds.

But while the Court ruled that the Chinese students were being denied equal educational opportunity, it did not call for any particular type of program as a remedy. In 1975, hew’s office for civil rights stepped in with the more specific regulatory guidelines known as “the Lau remedies.”

The new studies criticize current policy on several fronts. They attack the federal government for emphasizing bilingual education over other approaches, such as “English As a Second Language (esl)” and “structured immersion.”

In esl, foreign-speaking students take regular instruction for most of the day, but part of the day is also spent on extra instruction in mastering English.

The structured immersion approach involves getting instruction in English, but it is not a “sink or swim” method: the teachers are bilingual and will respond, in English, to native-tongue questions. The curriculum is structured so that no prior knowledge of English is assumed when the subject areas are taught.

The new studies also found that some children spoke English better than their native tongue or had trouble with both languages, and that poverty and other factors may contribute to poor school performance as much as the language barrier.

Thus, the summary report says, “Federal policy for language-minority students has been based on erroneous assumptions....Overlooking such factors as poverty or the child’s own language proficiency has narrowed the range of strategies considered by federal policy-makers to address the needs of language-minority students.”

The report notes, “If students are as limited in their native language as they are in English, the value of teaching them in two languages could be challenged. If children’s educational needs are poverty-based, language programs may be only partial solutions.”

One result of such assumptions, which the report views as mistaken, is that the federal focus on bilingual education programs under Title VII may have inadvertently denied language-minority students the benefits of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the report says. Strategies for the disadvantaged might have been developed under that program that could have better suited their needs, according to the report.

Moreover, the studies found that earlier Department of Education statistics overestimated by two-thirds the number of children in need of bilingual education services. By excluding children not enrolled in school or who use English, the current estimate of 3.6 million in need of bilingual education shrinks to one million or 1.5 million, one of the studies said.

The studies strongly attack the evidence currently used to support bilingual education, and offer new evidence of their own.

One paper commissioned for the project reviewed over 300 reports, but found only 25 studies that met “minimum methodological standards” in examining transitional bilingual education programs for effectiveness.

Of those 25 studies, only 11 reported any positive effects of tbe in comparison with other approaches, according to the research paper. But the few studies of “structured immersion” uniformly showed positive program effects, the paper found.

Qualified Teachers Scarce

The new studies also assert that there is a shortage of 13,000 qualified bilingual teachers, and that the annual cost of bilingual education for 1.2 million children could be as high as $840 million. There is also a lack of adequate tests to determine accurately the student’s native-language proficiency, the studies say.

In a prepared statement released last week, Gary L. Jones, deputy undersecretary of education for planning and budget--and the acting head of the departmental office which produced the new studies--said that the drafts do not reflect the opinion of the Education Department. “The issue at question,” he added, “is between the Office of Bilingual Education on the one hand and the Office of Planning and Evaluation on the other.”

Mr. Jones is personally familiar with the issue. While he was serving on the Fairfax County, Va., school board (a position he still holds), the board successfully challenged a Department of Education suit to require the use of transitional bilingual education programs in the county schools. Last December, they won the right to use the English-as-second language approach instead.

Project director for the Education Department’s draft studies was Alan L. Ginsberg of the department’s Office of Planning, Budget, and Evaluation.

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 1981 edition of Education Week as Federal Studies Debunk Bilingual Education, Suggest That States Choose Teaching Methods


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