WASHINGTON—The government should quit promoting bilingual education as the primary way to teach non-English-speaking children because there is only scant evidence it works best, an internal Department of Education report says.
“The case for the effectiveness of transitional bilingual education is so weak that exclusive reliance on this instruction method is clearly not justified,” according to the report, which was released Tuesday.
In bilingual education classes, students are taught reading, math and other basic subjects in their native language while also getting special instruction in English.
“While transitional bilingual education has been found to work in some settings, it has also been found ineffective and even harmful in other places,” the report concluded.
But the report criticized “sink or swim” methods of simply throwing non-English-speaking children into regular classrooms. The Supreme Court, it noted, had outlawed that practice in a 1974 decision involving Chinese youngsters in San Francisco’s public schools.
Instead, the report said, more federal funds should be poured into promising techniques such as “structured immersion,” in which a child is allowed to ask a question in his native language but the teacher responds only in English.
It also recommended placing non-English-speaking students in regular classes but giving them extra instruction in English for part of each day.
“The key to successful teaching in (English) seems to be to ensure that the second language and subject matter are taught simultaneously so that subject content never gets ahead of language,” the report said.
Last year then-Secretary of Education Shirley M. Hufstedler proposed mandating bilingual education unless a school district could prove it had an alternative method for teaching non-English speakers that was superior.
Her successor, T.H. Bell, rescinded that proposed rule last Feb. 2, less than two weeks after the Reagan administration took office. Bell said the government should not be prescribing any particular method of instruction.
The report was initiated last year by the Carter White House, which was concerned about the several hundred million dollars it would cost schools to provide bilingual education under Mrs. Hufstedler’s proposed rules.
Department analysts Keith A. Baker and Adriana A. de Kanter said they reviewed 300 studies of bilingual education but drew most of their conclusions from 28 studies they considered the most thorough.
For several years, the Office for Civil Rights in Education in the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare has pressed bilingual education and civil rights agreements with some 500 school districts.