Bilingual education fails, ex-Education staffer says

Bilingual education is a failure, says a former researcher with the Department of Education who charges the agency with trying to keep the information secret.

“If anything, bilingual programs do a little worse job in teaching English than if kids were just left alone to sink or swim,” says Keith Baker, who in nine years with the department became an acknowledged expert on the subject.

Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, a Hispanic, is on record supporting bilingual education. His predecessor, William J. Bennett, now drug czar, was an outspoken critic of bilingual education as an instructional tool.

Transitional bilingual education is a method of instruction in which non-English speakers are taught subject matter both in their native language and in English, with instructional time in English gradually increasing until the student is proficient. It is used primarily with Hispanic students.

Some of the so-called success stories about bilingual education can be attributed to factors such as small classes and individualized instruction, Mr. Baker said.

With few exceptions, schools in the Washington area, which can have up to 100 different languages represented among their students, use a method known as English as a second language in which language minority children are taught English through classroom use of English. Studies show acquisition of English is faster in ESL programs than in bilingual programs.

Mr. Baker estimates that the country spends more than $1 billion annually on bilingual education at federal, state and local levels. The federal government’s fiscal 1990 budget calls for expenditures of $158.5 million that will serve 250,000 students.

Mr. Cavazos on Friday drew swift criticism from Hispanics when he said in a speech in Laredo, Texas, that children who cannot speak English the first day of school are not “ready to learn.”

“The purpose of bilingual education is for children to learn English,” said Education Department spokeswoman Etta Fielek.

“It’s important for the public to know the truth about bilingual education,” says Mr. Baker. “The bilingual education special interests are very vocal and they do a lot of political lobbying, telling the public and congress that this is wonderful stuff and that all the research proves it works. There’s no research that proves it works.”

Mr. Baker accuses the Education Department of “systematically covering up mountains of research showing the failure of its own policy.”

“Just because the department asks for a study doesn’t mean it’s automatically made public,” said Ms. Fielek. “We can’t possibly print and distribute everything we have.”

The alleged coverup occurred during the Reagan administration when Mr. Bennett was education secretary, according to Mr. Baker.

“I don’t think Cavazos knew anything about it,” said Mr. Baker, a senior researcher in the Office of Planning, Budget and Evaluation from 1980 to 1989. “In the time I was there when Cavazos was, he didn’t have anything like the bureaucratic control that Bennett did.”

Although Mr. Bennett spoke out against bilingual education, after he turned his attention to other things, word filtered down to “cool it” on the bilingual education issue, according to Mr. Baker.

“Somebody between me and Bill Bennett wanted to squelch information,” he said.

Bruce Carnes, then deputy undersecretary for the Office of Planning, Budget and Evaluation, expressed surprise at the charge.

“Bill Bennett was criticized for saying that bilingual education was a failure,” recalled Mr. Carnes, now director of the Office of Planning, Budget and Administration in the office of the drug czar.

He said Mr. Bennett believed the department’s bilingual program needed serious reform. “If there was evidence it didn’t work that we didn’t use, I’m not aware of what it was,” he said.

“Keith [Baker] was the guy who always came up with the hard evidence that showed the failures of bilingual education,” he added. “We relied heavily on his work.”

Some of his own research on bilingual education was kept under wraps, Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Baker last week announced he has formed a think tank called the Institute for Research on English Acquisition and Development (READ), which will publicize studies that demonstrate the failure of bilingual education.

READ released two studies last week, including a revision of a 1987 analysis Mr. Baker wrote as a chapter for a book being compiled by two professors entitled “Bilingual Education – 20 Years of Civil Rights Failure.”

In it he charges bilingual education programs with failing to meet the first duty imposed by the Lau decision. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1974 Lau decision said a school district receiving federal aid must provide special instruction for non-English-speaking students.

What happens is that students whose only common characteristic is poor English are identified as needing bilingual education and suffer from the emphasis on Spanish, he said.

Also released was a 1987 poll which shows that almost half the Hispanic parents surveyed think teaching in Spanish harms the ability to learn English.

“Self-appointed ethnic leaders advocating bilingual education programs often argue that parental desire for maintenance of the native language also justifies bilingual education programs in the schools,” says Mr. Baker. “The results of the poll show these leaders are out of touch with their supposed followers.”

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