Battle On Bilingual Education

WASHINGTON—The General Accounting Office, in an unusual report, says most of the experts it consulted were at odds with the Reagan administration’s reading of the research on bilingual education.

The Reagan administration has argued that the research is too inconclusive to justify the current requirement in the Bilingual Education Act that most federally funded projects teach youngsters in their native language while they also learn English.

Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which commissioned the report, said Tuesday the GAO “did an excellent job . . . and produced a thorough and objective report.” He said he was very encouraged that the experts agreed the research “does support the native language requirement.”

Chester Finn Jr., the Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said the GAO report is “a bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies that defies the canons of scholarship.”

Finn charged that “this tortured, tortuous and tendentious document casts more heat than light on significant policy issues and thereby ill-serves the nation’s children, especially those who most need and want to become fluent in English.”

Most schools use a technique known as transitional bilingual education for Hispanic children and others who enter U.S. schools knowing little or no English. The youngsters are taught subjects in their native language while they also learn English. The goal is to keep them from falling behind in the basics while they master English.

Education Secretary William Bennett repeatedly has urged Congress to give school districts more flexibility in spending money from the $143 million bilingual education program. The law allows only 4 percent of the projects to use intensive, English-only instruction.

Bennett asserted in a September, 1985, speech that federal policies had gone astray and “too many children have failed to become fluent in English.” “After 17 years of federal involvement and after $1.7 billion of federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help . . . have benefited,” Bennett declared.

The GAO canvassed 10 education researchers. It asked for yes-or-no answers on whether the experts agreed with the administration on key issues.

“We took special care to include (five) persons who had been nominated by department staff and whose work had been cited by the department in support of its position,” the GAO report said.

A sixth person, Herbert Walberg, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been a frequent consultant to Bennett’s department and helped edit its guide to effective schooling called “What Works.”

“Only 2 of the 10 experts agree with the department that there is insufficient evidence to support the law’s requirement of the use of native language to the extent necessary to reach the objective of learning English,” the GAO said.

It said that “7 of the 10 believe that the department is incorrect in characterizing the evidence as showing the promise of teaching methods that do not use native languages.”

The GAO report includes letters from Walberg and another expert, education historian Diane Ravitch, criticizing the findings.

Walberg suggested both the GAO panel and the research literature may have been biased.

He said most of the research has been conducted by “true believers” whose livelihoods depend on the bilingual approach. “Getting information from such sources is like asking your barber if you need a haircut,” he said.

The other experts canvassed were Fred Bryant, psychology professor, Loyola University, Chicago; Courtney Cazden, education professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass.; Richard Duran, education professor, University of California-Santa Barbara; Lily Wong Fillmore, education professor, University of California-Berkeley; Gene Glass, education professor, Arizona State University, Tempe; Christina Bratt Paulston, linguistics professor, University of Pittsburgh; David Ramirez, study director, SRA Technologies, Mountain View, Calif.; and Richard Tucker, director, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington.

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