November 20, 2002
At the Department of Education's first summit on English-language acquisition,
Secretary of Education Rod Paige tip-toed around the fierce national debate over
how best to teach English to immigrant children, which led some participants to
try to interpret the department's position on the subject.
In his 15-minute speech on Nov. 13 to more than 1,600 educators who work with
English-language learners, Mr. Paige never uttered the words "bilingual
education" or "English immersion," which are the names of the two methods for
teaching English to immigrant children that are at the center of the debate.
Instead, he urged educators to have high expectations for all children."Learning
is a civil right," he said.
The secretary drew applause when he said, "The biggest problem we have is in the
minds of men and women who teach children but don't believe in them."
Mr. Paige stressed that for each child to be successful in school, he or she
must learn to read. He said that the focus on results rather than process in the
"No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 is intended to ensure that every child has an
opportunity to learn well.
The secretary touched on approaches for teaching English-language learners only
in his opening remarks by mentioning that the Bush administration has changed
the name of the department's office of bilingual education and
minority-languages affairs to the office of English-language acquisition.
"Our new name reflects our new mission," he said. "The funding is based on the
child—not the program. No child—not 'no program'—is to be left behind."
The secretary touched on bilingualism by saying that while schools need to teach
children English, students also need to learn an additional language.
Some who heard Mr. Paige's speech said the secretary should have spoken directly
about educational approaches for teaching English to children, while others said
he was wise to avoid the controversial subject.
Just this month, Massachusetts became the third state—after California and
Arizona—to pass a ballot initiative designed to replace most bilingual education
with English immersion. ("Colo. Extends Bilingual Ed., But Mass.
Voters Reject It," Nov. 13, 2002.)
Mari Rasmussen, the program director for English-language learners in North
Dakota, said Mr. Paige should have taken up the issue in his speech. "If we're
going to implement No Child Left Behind, we have to look at the needs of every
child, and bilingual education is an option for some children," she said.
Glynis Terrell, the coordinator of programs for English-language learners for
the Atlanta public schools, said that it was appropriate for Mr. Paige not to
address the subject, saying he was right to focus on how schools must have high
expectations for children instead of blaming their failure to learn on
She observed, "I haven't seen a true explanation of how the Department of
Education feels about bilingual education."
Joan E. Friedenbery, a professor of bilingual education at Southern Illinois
University Carbondale, interpreted various aspects of the planning of the
conference as efforts by the department to distance itself from bilingual
For example, she observed that the department decided to hold its own summit on
English-language acquisition and canceled plans to provide a seminar on the
education of English-language learners at the annual conference this coming
January of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, as
it has historically.
But Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the director of the office of English-language
acquisition, said the department's decision to stop providing a seminar in
conjunction with NABE is "in no shape or form" an effort to distance itself from
the organization or bilingual education.
She said Mr. Paige doesn't object to bilingual education. But, she also said,
"bilingual education is just one program to meet the goal of English
acquisition. The department doesn't present teaching of one method over
—Mary Ann Zehr
© 2002 Editorial Projects in Education Vol. 22, number 12, page 10