When William Bennett, the nation’s contentious secretary of education, announced last fall that bilingual education had failed, his remarks were more an extension of the Reagan administration’s campaign against the program than a true assessment of how well the country was educating its immigrant students.

Many congressional leaders and supporters of bilingual education perceived Bennett’s criticisms to be part of a well-orchestrated attack on hard-won civil rights programs, like similar attacks on affirmative action and desegregation made by other Reagan appointees.

At one point, the opposition reached such a pitch that the conservative Council for Inter-American Security linked supporters of bilingual education to “separatism, cultural apartheid and the potential for terrorism in the U.S.”

It was typical of the debate over bilingual education, which consistently has suffered from an overabundance of heat and a paucity of light.

Nearly a year after Bennett’s pronouncements, the U.S. Education Department, bolstered by these conservative forces, is pressing on with drastic steps aimed at dismantling bilingual education programs nationwide. By failing to enforce the current law and by calling for a weakening of its statutes, the department is discouraging the use of native-language instruction in the classroom.

Bilingual supporters fear this will virtually wipe out any progress made in helping immigrant students adapt, while moving the country back to a time when newcomers struggled alone to pick up what English they could.

The move is considered by many critics to be particularly unfortunate now when the greatest surge of legal and illegal immigrants since the 1920s is changing the makeup of most urban centers and even of rural and suburban areas.

And many consider it to be a political maneuver rather than a decision based on sound educational goals. “This is all part of a xenophobic response to foreigners and to languages other than English,” said Ricardo Martinez, an aide on the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor.

Most bilingual education classes combine English and Spanish, but many Illinois schools also have classes in Korean, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Greek and Assyrian for the growing numbers of immigrant children who speak those languages.

Resistance to the use of languages other than English goes beyond pedagogy to deeper questions about what type of nation this should be and whether the nation can again embrace new groups of immigrants.

Although the United States is a nation of immigrants, newcomers have never been wholeheartedly welcomed by those already here, even those just recently arrived. The English looked down on the Germans who scorned the Irish who made fun of the Polish who ridicule the Mexicans.

Partly because of that prejudice, each wave of immigrants quickly discarded its Old World culture in a rush to become “Americanized,” but at a price.

Grandparents found they could not speak with their grandchildren because of the language barrier; names were changed to sound less foreign; customs were set aside, only to be revived sometimes two or three generations later by families searching for their roots.

Today’s immigrants–especially Hispanics and Asians–have resisted losing their culture, choosing instead to become bicultural, passing onto their children languages and traditions that earlier generations of Americans perceived as a threat to the nation’s coherence and stability.

No one is debating whether children should learn to speak English. Supporters and opponents of bilingual education agree that is the ultimate goal. The argument centers on whether they should be encouraged to keep and nourish a second language as well. It is an argument that tends to obscure the greater concern of finding the best way to educate all children.

Bilingual activists insist that all children with limited proficiency in English should be taught using two languages. They point to the benefits of having a society where many people are truly bilingual, and say government has an interest in fostering such abilities in its citizens.

Others favor immersion programs in which only English is spoken. They argue that a diversity of languages is divisive and that it is up to the home, not the school, to maintain culture and language.

They support the efforts of Bennett and others to scuttle bilingual programs and official uses of foreign languages, such as bilingual ballots. Together they have created a formidable campaign against bilingualism.

A recent report by the Education Department’s office for civil rights has documented a sharp decrease in enforcement of bilingual education laws during the Reagan administration.

In June, Bennett issued new rules allowing school districts “broad discretion” in deciding how much native language to use in the education of immigrant students. The rules also require districts to shoulder an increasing fiscal burden for bilingual programs.

An amendment now being considered in the U.S. Senate would allow all federal bilingual funds to be used for English-only programs.

California voters will decide in November whether to make English that state’s official language, and U.S. English, a Washington, D.C., group led by former U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R., Calif.), continues to push for a constitutional amendment that would make English the nation’s official tongue.

The changes are unwise, critics say, because they are based not just on animosity toward ethnic groups, but on faulty assessments of bilingual education programs, which only now are being evaluated after struggling 15 years for acceptance.

Those assessments mistook administrative problems and a lack of well- trained staff for inherent flaws in the concept of bilingual education.

Current research, however, suggests that students get better grades, develop more creative ways of thinking and even become more fluent in English when taught in two languages, according to a report of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

“Bilingual education is a program that has never been given a chance to work,” said Josue Gonzales, former director of bilingual education for the U.S. Department of Education and a Chicago school official.

What is needed now is a coherent plan on how best to teach the growing numbers of immigrant children, based on sound educational research and successes.

While it is true that many bilingual education programs are hampered by a lack of well-trained teachers, inadequate supplies and resistance from administrators, there are programs that work well. They teach immigrant students English and prevent them from falling behind their peers in other subjects.

In San Francisco; El Paso, Tex.; Los Angeles; and Chicago area schools, quite different approaches are helping students overcome the hurdles of a new land. In San Francisco, stockpiles of learning resources and skilled teachers are assembled in “newcomers” schools, which serve as incubators for an immigrant student’s first crucial year in America. The emphasis on English is strong, but bilingual teachers, aides and volunteers work with students in their native languages.

Pilot elementary school programs in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California show that when immigrant students are taught nearly all their courses in Spanish for the first four years and gradually introduced to English, they move from reading in Spanish to English without losing ground. Children in programs that emphasize less Spanish usually fall two or three years behind when they move to English.

In Chicago, programs such as those at the Inter-American Magnet School make the best use of the strengths of two cultures by teaching all children, regardless of ethnic backround, in English and Spanish.

In Elk Grove Village, a strong network of bilingual teachers and aides moves children to English fluency without sacrificing progress in math, social studies and science.

There is also a place for English-only programs that are well-thought-out and tailored to specific needs of students.

In El Paso, a highly structured all-English program for high school students has reduced dropout rates and put immigrant Mexican students on honor rolls by teaching them the English vocabulary needed for specific course work and then supporting them with computers, small classes and skilled teachers.

What the good programs have in common is a clear vision of what the curriculum is expected to accomplish, a firm structure to keep that vision on track and trained specialists to bring it to fruition. The leaders in those schools–from the superintendent and board members to principals–support bilingual education and give it the resources it needs.

But the dismantling Bennett is pushing, many fear, would give other, less-than-enthusiastic school districts the green light to do little or nothing to help immigrant children.

A better approach, not only for immigrant children but also for the nation, would be to identify programs that are succeeding and copy them. Such programs might be centralized in a district, such as the newcomers schools in San Francisco or the special language center in Chicago.

Without a sound strategy for teaching immigrant students, a nation that exults in ethnic diversity will find it has cut off the source of its pride.

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