WASHINGTON—Spanish-speaking elementary school children in three different bilingual education programs excelled at the same rate as students in the general student population, according to a report released Monday by the Education Department.

The study, conducted over four years beginning in 1984, tracked about 2,000 Spanish-speaking students from kindergarten through the fourth grade who participated in three types of English-as-second-language programs in California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey.

In one program, students were taught only in English but were segregated in special classes taught by bilingual teachers. Another program provided 30 to 60 minutes of instruction in Spanish each day, and the third required at least 40% of the classes to be in Spanish.

The students in all three programs “improved their skills in mathematics, English and reading as fast or faster than students in the general population,” the study said. It added that the English-only programs seemed just as effective as those that provided a great many classes in Spanish.

“Based on this study, we can conclude that bilingual education benefits students, and school administrators can choose the method best suited to their students, confident that, if well implemented, it will reap positive results,” said Ted Sanders, an undersecretary of education.

The study, conducted by Aguirre International of San Mateo, Calif., found also that most of the bilingual education teachers in the three programs were not as effective as they could be.

“We’ve developed a core of passive students,” said Rita Esquivel, director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs. Esquivel explained that teachers should encourage students to use creative thinking in answering question rather than asking for one-word responses.

“There is a need to improve the quality of training programs for teachers serving language-minority students both at the university and school district levels, so that they can provide a more active learning environment for language and cognitive skill development,” the study said.

Bilingual education is already widely used in California, where about one in four pupils in kindergarten through the third grade has limited English skills. More than two-thirds of those non-English speakers are native Spanish speakers.

“It’s exactly in line with what we’ve been doing,” said Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, of the report’s suggestion that schools decide autonomously how to teach Spanish-speaking children.

“You might say we already reached the next level of sophistication. We’ve been doing that all along,” Honig said. He added that parental input should be the deciding factor in how to instruct the students.

The report warned against transferring students from an instructional program offered mainly in their primary language to a program that provides almost all instruction in English.

It said also that the best effects were achieved when a student stayed in the program more than four years, even if he achieved fluency before that time.

Before 1968, there were only a handful of bilingual programs in the country. Twenty-one states with major Latino populations, such as California and Texas, had laws requiring English as the exclusive language of instruction in public schools. In seven of those states, including Texas, a teacher was subject to criminal penalties or loss of teaching credentials if caught teaching in a language other than English.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 ended many of those English-only statutes because it barred states with such laws from receiving federal funds for their schools.

But, still, the preferred method of teaching non-fluent English students throughout the country has been complete immersion in the English language.

In California, however, most schools choose transitional bilingual education programs in which students are taught primarily in English but receive some support in their native language. Most of those students are able to enter the main stream of education with native English-speaking children within three or four years, according to the California Department of Education.

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