”Our political democracy rests on the conviction that each citizen should have the capacity to participate fully in our political life; to read newspapers, magazines, and books … to express ideas and opinions … and to vote thoughtfully – all activities that call for literacy in English.”

So says the Twentieth Century Fund’s Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Policy, and it shores up this sound observation by emphasizing the importance of literacy in English as an educational objective.

Hardly a revolutionary goal – but one largely ignored, even undercut, by current approaches to American schoolchildren for whom English is a second language. With Washington’s blessing, these programs concentrate on bilingual education. In theory it makes children fluent in English without obliterating their native language. In practice it often only retards mastery of English.

Bilingual programs too often take children from an environment in which little English is spoken and then conduct much of their education in their native tongue. The children are thereby denied any immersion in an English-speaking environment, even though such immersion may be the most effective way to learn a new language.

The bilingual method also requires a bilingual teacher for every language a school’s children may speak, an absurd demand in cities where pupils may come from all over the world.

The Twentieth Century Fund task force properly avoids endorsing a single approach to the goal of English literacy. It is laudably specific, however, in urging Washington to support any effective program that promotes ”the primacy of English” and not to focus so exclusively on bilingual education. That focus has for too long enjoyed a monopoly in the public schools.

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