In San Francisco, a group of second-graders at the Commodore Stockton School are hard at work on social studies. Their text: a giant board, propped against a wall, that tells the story of Columbus in Chinese ideographs.

At PS 9 in New York City, several fourth- and fifth-graders whose families recently arrived from Haiti are having a language lesson.”What do you read at home?” asks the teacher, Mrs. St. Hubert, in carefully articulated English. “I read the the newspaper,” answers one little boy carefully. Then, as a classmate returns a pencil he dropped, he smiles. “Merci,” he says easily. “Je m’excuse.”

Debra Harrison, a blond second-grader at Miami’s Coral Way Elementary School, has reading asssignment for the day in two separate textbooks. One is a book of English stories called “Gold and Silver.” The other is a Spanish primer entitled “De Aqui Para Alla.”

Bilingual education, the wide-ranging network of programs that offer all or part of the public-school curriculum in a language other than English, is now a firm part of U.S. educational policy. From coast to coast, and especially in areas where large minorities do not speak English as a mother tongue, bilingual projects are proliferating at an extraordinary rate.Just six years ago, not a single state required bilingual teaching – and 22 forbade it by law. Today, eleven states demand some form of bilingual schooling. Dozens of large urbans school districts have established programs on their own, some under court orders. This year, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare will sponsor 627 bilingual projects – teacher-training, curriculum-development and schoolroom programs – in 68 languages. The cost of all these programs is likely to surpass $200 million in Federal and state money.

To many Americans, accustomed to the idea that English-speaking schools supply the heat under the melting pot, the sudden strength of bilingual education comes as something of a shock. The abrupt shift of policy has caused confusion and controversy, and behind the bewildering welter of theories, formulas and requirements lie a number of critical questions. Is bilingual teaching the best way to educate children who do not speak English? If so, should it be the goal of schools to use native languages only as a bridge to English – and then to insist that the students use English alone? Or is it socially desirable to encourage ethnic groups to maintain their own tongues as well?

Current bilingual policy is a curious hybrid of pedagogy and politics. The big push for it began during the 1960s, as evidence accumulated that large numbers of children from non-English-speaking families were simply not doing well in school. In 1966, sociologist James Coleman’s landmark study of educational opportunity showed that students of Mexican, Puerto Rican and American Indian background were completing high school at achievement levels far below national norms. Meanwhile, language schools were compiling persuasive evidence that children learn most readily in their native language – and that proficiency in the mother tongue is a head start for learning others.

But perhaps the strongest support for bilingual education has come with the rise of ethnic pride. As ethnic groups, particularly the Hispanics, began to revive interest in their diverse cultural heritages, they stressed maintenance of their native languages as a “right.” In 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the San Francisco school district had denied Chinese students equal access to education by ignoring their language problems, many ethnic activists thought their position had been affirmed.

Remedy: But the Supreme Court had not actually ordered bilingual education; the Justices merely ruled that something must be done to help students who do not speak English. Some districts have responded with intensive programs in “English as a Second Language.” But bilingual education is by far the most popular solution.

Bilingual programs are almost as diverse as the students they serve, but most fall into one of two categories. “Transitional” projects are designed to use the mother tongue only in primary grades (usually, first through third) to promote learning in general subjects until a child’s English is good enough to take over entirely. “Maintenance” programs try to develop literacy in both the native tongue and English, with the hope that students will become highly proficient in both.

In some bilingual schools, such as San Francisco’s Commodore Stockton, morning classes are all in English and afternoon sessions are in the native language. Other schools, like many in New Mexico, teach all subjects in English one day and in Spanish the next. Mrs. St. Hubert, at New York’s PS 9, switches back and forth constantly, from English to French, with her Haitian students. Though English-speaking children are not required to join the classes taught in another language, many bilingual schools encourage them to participate. Thus, black, white and Asian youngsters all attend Chinese-language classes at Commodore Stockton.

Controversy: In Colorado, where 89,000 schoolchildren are of Hispanic origin, the legislature has passed a law that orders bilingual-bicultural education. Under it, districts with at least 50 Hispanic students in grades kindergarten through three must institute full-time programs. Some school boards have designed curriculums that call for full-day classes in Spanish history, culture and language.

Critics of the Colorado law think the $5.6 million program is a disaster, far less educational in intent than political. State Sen. Hugh Fowler chairman of the Senate’s education committee, charges that the bill was passed in an atmosphere of terror, including bomb threats against legislators by chicano militants. “The state is just subsidizing the political activities of minority groups in the name of education,” says Fowler bitterly. “People who use children to achieve their political ends ought to be strung up.” Many of Fowler’s colleagues agree – and they debate the educational merits of bicultural education. “The idea is a fraud,” contends one senate aide. “It mandates that we teach kids that being Spanish-speaking in the American culture is a hell of a deal – and that’s a lie.”

The Colorado debate is a microcosm of the argument elsewhere. Even teachers are divided on the issue. The National Education Association firmly supports bilingual education – and attributes the controversy to misconceptions about its purpose. “It’s not a political ploy by minority groups. It’s simply a way to help kids who don’t speak English – it even reduces their astronomical dropout rates,” says Carmetl Sandoval, one of NEA’s experts. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is not so sure. Whatever bilingual education’s instructional values, he argues, politics are inextricably involved. “It’s no coincidence that bilingual-education teachers in New York are mostly Spanish-surnamed,” says Shanker.”What many community groups want is not a teacher who’s fluent in English and Spanish, but a teacher who’s Puerto Rican.”

Teachers of all persuasions see some horrendous practical problems with the bilingual movement. By one estimate, 129,000 special teachers would be needed to teach the 3.6 million school-age children whose first language is not English. HEW is devoting $19.5 million to teacher training alone, but that is hardly enough. Many bilingual programs have to rely on paraprofessional help from parents, who often are not well-schooled in the subjects being taught. In Chicago, among other places, program coordinators have complained that many bilingual teachers are fluent in the native tongue but do not speak English much better than their students – and are of little help in encouraging the children to learn the second language.

Textbooks and other instructional materials are also in short supply. Since bilingual education tends to be so regional in concentration, most national publishers have not entered the field, and many teachers are left to their own devices. “Teaching Puerto Rican children from a texbook written in Castilian Spanish is a little like teaching an Appalachian kid from a London schoolboy’s primer,” says the supervisor for one elementary program in Chicago.

Heritage: Most of the bilingual programs are too new for any solid evaluation, but at least two points seem perfectly clear: there is a direct relationship between the quality of the bilingual teachers and the students’ progress – and a strong correlation between parents’ attitudes and how the children do in school. In Detroit, where a new $1.5 million bilingual program is in effect, Spanish-speaking children appear to be making solid strides in the two-language classrooms. But parents who speak Chaldean (an Iraqi language) and Arabic want no part of bilingual education. “The heritage can come later,” explains the Rt. Rev. George Carmo, a Chaldean churchman. “Parents are very happy with the language of this country, and that is what they want their children to learn.”

Some students of American history worry that bilingual education may prove divisive, further isolating ethnic groups from one another – and from the mainstream, as well. “It happens to be terribly fashionable right now to proclaim that the whole ideal of a common American nation was a brutally oppressive delusion,” says Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard social historian. “But though the old pressure to Americanize immigrants was pretty heavy-handed at times, essentially I think it was necessary. It’s not possible to operate in a complex society with twenty different languages – Italian spoken in this factory, Serbo-Croatian in that one.”

Challenge: But supporters of bilingual education stress that what they seek to achieve is bilingualism – command of two languages, including English. A child’s familarity with a language other than English, they argue, is a great educational resource that should be cultivated, not suppressed. Prof. Joshua Fishman, a sociolinguist at New York’s Yeshiva University, thinks that all children would benefit from bilingual education, and that society at large would be richer for it.

The challenge, of course, is to make sure that the new bilingual programs are carefully developed and adequately evaluated. At best, they could result in new progress for hundreds of thousands of children whose education might once have stopped short at the language barrier. At worst, they could produce a new crop of graduates who are illiterate in two languages, instead of just one.

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