Bilingual Redoux


BILINGUAL EDUCATION is, once again, struggling for life in the political limelight. But this time, it is about to be abandoned by the individual who should be its most ardent supporter. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has called for the redesigning of bilingual instruction in a move that would be to the extreme detriment of the public education system.

Bilingual education programs came to life with the Supreme Court's Lau decision in 1974, recognizing the Constitutional right of non-English speaking students to instruction in their native language. Congress responded with bipartisan approval of the Bilingual Education Act, requiring that all school districts provide bilingual instruction for those who need it.

These programs, administered by each state, recognize, rightly, that bilingual education is vital for the academic achievement of students from homes where English is not the main language. The programs' focus is on preventing students from falling behind in their studies due to lack of communication. By overcoming language barriers in the classroom, bilingual education attempts to bridge the traditional gap in scholastic achievement between non-English speaking and majority students.

The current controversy is not over the programs' aims, but rather over their effectiveness.

A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational programs, funded by the Department of Education, concluded that bilingual education is partly responsible for the improvement of reading skills among Hispanic groups. Opponents of the programs, however, maintain that bilingual instruction promotes school separatism, hinders fluency in English, and is a contributing factor to the high drop-out rate among bilingual students, most of whom are Hispanic. Critics cite inefficient use of funds and the lack of dramatic results as justification for their eradication. They call for a return to the "submersion style" of language instruction, in which all courses are taught in English. Under this method, it is assumed that the students "submerged" in the language will eventually master it. It is also assumed that they will be able to pick up any instruction already lost.

As the Court established, this "submersion" technique is deficient for several reasons. First of all, it assumes that non-English speaking students are young enough to learn English quickly and catch up with their peers in class. High school-aged students are at an obvious disadvantage. They have much less opportunity to make up for time lost. Students who must sacrifice the contents of their courses for the purposes of learning a language are illequipped for both the job market and for continued academic careers. Furthermore, the implicit message relayed to non-English students forced to take classes in English is that education for them is a vocational exercise while for their peers it comprises content-laden studies. Expecting students to thrive in this environment is unreasonable and counter to the purpose of education.

IN ADDRESSING the critics, Mr. Bennett revealed a plan to change the approach to bilingual instruction by shifting responsibility for it from the federal to local authorities. In a September 26 speech, he said that a single national program is ineffective for school districts spread across the country. He contends that each school district can tailor its own programs to suit its unique needs.

While Mr. Bennett's proposal of decentralization seems attractive, it disregards the realities faced by bilingual programs. Local politics play an important role in the making of school districts' curricula. The 200,000 students currently enrolled in bilingual programs constitute a small minority in the areas in which they reside. Both the Supreme Court and Congress have recognized that the surest way of protecting minority groups' rights is to mandate a federal program. The Lau decision concluded that when the issue of bilingual education was left to local school districts, the students in need of bilingual instruction were not receiving it.

Mr. Bennett is right in recognizing that bilingual education is in need of revision. The federal dollars appropriated for bilingual programs have been far from sufficient to meet their needs. The funds have not kept pace with inflation, much less with the growing population in need of special language instruction.

Moreover, many non-English speaking students have not been receiving the bilingual education to which they are entitled. Classes have been overcrowded and the instruction has often been of lower quality than that in mainstream courses, experts say. Consequently, the drop-out rate for non-English speaking students, primarily Hispanics, has remained high.

DECENTRALIZATION is not the panacea to the programs' ills. Funds earmarked for bilingual education must be augmented to meet the needs of all the students it was designed to help. Currently, there is no effective means of insuring that bilingual programs are being offered to all non-English speaking students. While approximately 3100 schools provide bilingual programs, the type of services offered are by no means uniform. Some schools offer full bilingual classroom instruction and others provide only bilingual counseling.

Heavy-handed government policies are not the cause of the programs' ineffectiveness; rather they suffer from lack of federal guidance and adequate funding. The problems faced by bilingual education are problems faced by the whole education system. The number of qualified teachers is diminishing and the drop-out rate is increasing. Recent statistics indicate that fewer than three-fourths of American youths receive a high school diploma.

Clearly, bilingual education is not the only program suffering from Bennett's neglect. But it offers irreplaceable benefits the demise of which would have unconscionable repercussions.

Bilingual education is the only means of effectively improving the academic performance of non-English speaking students. It legitimizes their academic studies, rather than reducing them to vocational language training. Unlike the submersion method, bilingual instruction does not regard a student's non-English training as a hearing and speech impediment easily overcome.

In fact, if encouraged, proficiency in two languages can be an asset both academically and professionally. Academic achievement is vital to economic fate, and furthermore this country has a tradition of undervaluing knowlege of other languages.

Rather than being a hindrance to academic experience, bilingual skills should be treated as an asset. Not to recognize their worth is a travesty.