LAST month the Department of Education delivered an explosive ruling on Fairfax County, Va. The department said that it was all right for the county to teach non-English-speaking pupils by other means than bilingual classes.

The ruling was attacked by advocates of bilingual education, especially by Hispanic civil rights organizations; on the other hand, it was hailed by the National School Boards Association and by many school administrators.

What makes the ruling significant is that it comes just as the controversy over bilingual education has been heating up. Opponents of bilingual education have accused the Education Department of stacking its recently prepared guidelines in favor of bilingual education as the preferred method of dealing with non-Englishspeaking children. Congress, sensing an anti-bilingual mood among voters, responded by prohibiting the department from posting its guidelines until the final word on the matter could be send down from the Hill, probably not before next spring, long after President Reagan’s education experts have taken charge. A recent Gallup Poll showed that most Americans favor crash programs to teach English to non-English-speaking pupils.

The question may be raised whether the Department of Education’s views on Fairfax County have been affected by the impending change of official politics. Acceptance of the county’s all-English instruction stands in contrast to an earlier Federal threat of withholding up to $18 million in Federal funds if the schools fail to provide bilingual programs.

At the heart of the controversy, politics aside, are two opposing pedagogical approaches: The bilingual concept holds that non-English-speaking children should be taught the regular academic subjects, such as reading, mathematics and social studies, in their own language, by teachers who master the children’s native tongue as well as English, until they are ready to cope with English in regular classes.

The English as a second language (E.S.L.) approach is based on intensive English instruction, given to all non-English-speaking children together by specially trained teachers. Otherwise, they attend regular classes together with their English-speaking peers.

Many school administrators favor E.S.L. for fiscal reasons: when schools must cope with children from many parts of the world, separate bilingual programs are extremely costly and teachers fluent in such a variety of languages are hard to find. During a recent visit to a high school in Queens, children with 14 different native languages were found to be learning English together in an E.S.L. class.

At present, there are an estimated 3.6 million pupils with limited knowledge of English in the public schools, three-fourths of them of Hispanic background. About 800,000 are taught in bilingual classes at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, including $167 million contributed by the Federal Government.

Whether or not the motives were political in the Fairfax County ruling, the Education Department placed the emphasis on the pedagogical issue. Its letter to the local school authorities praised the effect of the county’s $2 million intensive English program in which students with some 50 different native tongues are participating. The letter stressed that achievement tests indicate that the students made ”consistent and significant progress,” thus satisfying the Civil Rights Act’s requirements.

For the moment, the Federal authorities suggest nothing more than that the Fairfax experience ”has shown that it can be done in other ways” than bilingual education.

But on a strictly pedagogical level, the Fairfax experience puts the spotlight on a question that troubles many language-teaching experts. The issue was raised during a recent discussion sponsored by the Bar Association of the City of New York.

One educator described the situation of many non-English-speaking youngsters who come from homes where no English is spoken. In school, he said, they attend most of their bilingual classes surrounded by other non-English-speaking children, while getting most of their instruction in their native tongue. After school, they return to a neighborhood where once again little if any English is spoken. The burden of teaching them English falls on a minute portion of their day. Since they are given to understand that bilingual instruction will prevent them from falling behind in their academic subjects, there is little incentive for them to speed their mastery of English.

There is growing agreement in modern language circles that intensive use of the language to be learned, technically known as immersion, is the most efficient way, particularly for young children before adolescence makes them self-conscious.

None of this has so far persuaded the advocates of bilingual education. After the Fairfax ruling, Vilma Martinez, president and general counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said: ”We believe the best quality program for MexicanAmericans is bilingual education – the use of the child’s own language to teach the child English.”

Pedagogically, this view clashes with the latest professional prescriptions. From the commercial Berlitz method to the immersion usually identified with Middlebury College or the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., the stress is on the opposite strategy: teaching the new language totally divorced from the native one. The goal is to force the student instead to think in the language in the same way as an infant does in learning his own language.

The concern expressed by Hispanic and other civil rights groups about imposing the American language and culture and replacing the children’s native heritage is nevertheless understandable in the light of history. The public schools often interpreted their Americanization mission with jingoistic singlemindedness little short of brutality. Many children were turned against their parents, whose ways and speech were held up to ridicule and scorn.

Political supporters of bilingual education still react to that misguided zeal, and their pedagogical response may thus be influenced by experience as well as by political considerations. The Fairfax ruling could be the first effort by Washington to remind the schools that the most effective way to teach children English should be determined on pedagogical grounds alone.

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