The trouble with much ”bilingual” education is that it isn’t bilingual. Too often it’s a program to teach children math, social studies and science in their native language without any genuine effort to help them function in English as soon as possible.

That moving children into English instruction is desirable should be beyond debate. Whatever the transitional value of teaching them in a native language, English is the essential skill for anyone expecting opportunity in the United States. ”Bilingual” programs are worthy of Federal subsidy only so long as achievement in English is their true aim.

That is the principle that would be reaffirmed by a bill the Reagan Administration has submitted to Congress. It would let local school systems decide how best to achieve the goal. But it would stop requiring that youngsters be taught in their native tongue.

Such native-language training may or may not be helpful to pupils also busily learning English. The available research is inconclusive. But the proposed law would stop denying Federal aid to districts that choose to immerse them in mostly English studies.

Flexibility in approach was the clear intent of Congress 15 years ago when it passed the Bilingual Education Act to support any ”new and imaginative” program for non-English speaking students. Only gradually was the statute bent to require teaching in native languages. The Health, Education and Welfare Department’s Office of Civil Rights insisted in 1970 on ”special assistance” for non-English speakers. The Supreme Court upheld its guidelines and directed schools to create special programs in foreign languages. In 1975, the civil rights office directed that districts had to develop ”bilingual” programs; an all-English program no longer qualified for support. The bilingual programs have probably been useful in many situations. They are thought to have helped many immigrant children adapt to a new culture at their own pace. They ended the often cruel practice, particularly in the Southwest, of letting Mexican-American students move uncomprehendingly through school, falling far behind because they were learning neither English nor the subject matter in Spanish. But all too often, bilingual programs pay only lip service to the goal of making students proficient in English. Some teachers in the programs are themselves inadequate in English. Students are often kept in non-English classes longer than necessary. The foreign-language teachers and bilingual managers have developed a vested interest in preserving their enrollments. They often exaggerate the difficulty or damage of rushing youngsters along in English. A study for the Twentieth Century Fund this year went so far as to urge the Federal Government to stop supporting bilingual education. It argued for ”immersion” in English language study and special help in other subjects when needed. Most educators seem to consider that the soundest approach to educating children for life in America. The virtue of the Administration’s bill is that it does not even try to resolve this educational argument. Far from eliminating bilingual programs, as its critics charge, the bill would make proficiency in English a primary requirement for bilingual teachers, refine the requirements for evaluating bilingual programs, and let school districts decide whether their non-English speakers are best served by ”immersion” courses or transitional training in native languages. For those who honestly hope to promote learning in English, that seems the wisest course.

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