Differences prevent debate on bilingual education

It was supposed to be a debate about the future of bilingual education, but supporters couldn’t be persuaded to sit on the same panels with critics.

The result was separate, dueling conferences yesterday on a topic that has become a lightning rod for issues related to immigration, especially since Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s recent announcement that he backs a law making English the official language of government.

Defenders of bilingual education – a teaching method that employs extensive use of native language instruction – got in their licks in the morning at a policy seminar sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and 11 interest groups including the National Education Association.

Critics had their say in the afternoon at a session sponsored by Linda Chavez’s Center for Equal Opportunity.

Christine Rossell, professor of political science at Boston University who is writing a book about bilingual education, told the afternoon group that “an all English classroom is not a panacea, and Transitional Bilingual Education is not a disaster.” All the good teachers subvert the mandates and the bilingual theory that children must first become proficient in their native language, she said, and instead teach youngsters primarily in English.

Her recommendation for teaching children with limited English proficiency is “structured immersion” which respects children’s native language and culture but doesn’t require teachers to know their native language.

In researching her book, Mrs. Rossell found that most classes labeled bilingual education teach the youngsters in English if those youngsters happen to be almost any ethnicity except Hispanic.

“If they don’t have black or brown skin, they will be taught in English,” she said.

“I’m told the Russian kids can ‘handle it,’ ” she said. “The belief is that Hispanic kids must be taught in Spanish.”

Miss Chavez said she is not opposed to “two-way immersion programs” or to bilingual education, but believes that early access to English is the key to success.

Miguel Alvarado, a Los Angeles father of five Spanish-speaking children, told the group: “I have not studied about this, but I have my own experience on the subject. Trying to teach everything in two languages has slowed down their learning.”

Sally Peterson, who teaches kindergarten in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said early in her teaching career she was “a total supporter” of bilingual education.

“It’s a disaster now,” she said. “Let’s call this program what it is. It’s not a bilingual education program. It’s a Spanish development program.”

Challenging some of the speakers at the afternoon session, Stephen Krashen, professor at University of Southern California and an authority on bilingual education, said complaints about bilingual education, such as the arbitrary placement of Englishspeaking children with Spanish surnames in programs, stem from the way the programs are executed.

“We’re talking practice vs. theory,” said Mr. Krashen, who had declined to participate in Miss Chavez’s conference but was a panelist at the morning session.

“I was available. I decided not to do it,” he said.

Rep. Toby Roth, Wisconsin Republican and sponsor of a bill that would end the mandate for bilingual education and foreign language ballots and make English the official language of government, said he now has 84 sponsors on his bill.

“Our biggest opposition has always been the politicians and the bureaucracy,” he said.

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