Skill in English comes slowly to Hispanic pupils enrolled in three popular bilingual education programs, a new federal study shows.

After four years of bilingual instruction in the most successful bilingual program, only a quarter of the Spanish-speaking elementary school children were proficient enough in English to be put in regular classes, the Department of Education report says. In that program, the teacher is supposed to use Spanish only for “clarification.”

The study was released yesterday – and the programs were touted as successes by the Department of Education. But it did not:

* Look at non-native English speakers of languages other than Spanish.

* Compare the achievement of students in bilingual programs with those in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs which do not use native-language instruction and are widely used in Washington area schools.

* Compare after sixth grade the achievement of pupils coming out of English-intensive programs with those who spent seven years in bilingual programs that leaned heavily on Spanish language instruction.

Nevertheless, Acting Education Secretary Ted Sanders said in a prepared statement: “Based on this study, we can conclude that bilingual education benefits students.”

“It shows that using the primary language does not impede progress in English,” Rita Esquivel, director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs and an advocate of bilingual education, said at a press briefing yesterday.

As a result of the study, Ms. Esquivel said: “I think we’re going to re-evaluate” federal policy. Congress now limits the share of federal grant money for alternative methods of instruction to 25 percent and targets the lion’s share of her office’s $198 million budget to bilingual instruction.

Ms. Esquivel said she hoped the report “puts to rest” the debate over bilingual education that has raged since Congress mandated it in 1974 as the preferred method of instruction. Many advocates of bilingual education believe it should reinforce Spanish language and culture as well as teach children to speak English.

The new study looked at 2,000 elementary school children in nine districts in California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and New York. The objective, explained Ricky Takai, director of the Multilevel & Special Populations Division in the Office of Planning, Budget and Evaluation, was to compare the effectiveness of three commonly used bilingual education approachs:

* Structured English immersion, in which all instruction is in English but the teacher may use Spanish for clarification.

* Early-exit transitional, in which 20 to 30 percent of the initial instruction, usually reading, is in Spanish. By second grade, virtually all instruction is in English and students are mainstreamed into the regular classroom at the end of the school year.

* Late-exit transitional, which reinforces students’ Spanish and teaches them in their native language at least 40 percent of the time. Students stay in the program through sixth grade, regardless of when they are determined to be proficient in English and Spanish.

Seventeen percent of the children in “early-exit transitional” programs were able to be mainstreamed at the end of third grade, compared with the 25 percent of pupils in the structured immersion program.

Limited English-proficient elementary pupils in Montgomery County public schools typically are mainstreamed out of the ESOL program in 1 1/2 to two years, said Maria Schaub, director of the Division of ESOL/Bilingual Programs.

“We provide some bilingual classes for students,” she said.

The study also revealed that bilingual teachers, whether using English or Spanish, did most of the talking and deprived their pupils of opportunities to use English.

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