Verdict still out on programs
USA Today Editorial, October 28, 2002
On Nov. 5, voters in Massachusetts and Colorado will decide whether to scale
back bilingual classes in their public schools. The ballot initiatives reflect
the public's growing dissatisfaction with the academic progress made by students
who are taught course material in their native languages.
But if the idea of voters setting education policy seems odd, it should. In an
ideal world, scientific research — not the whims of the public — would guide
With bilingual programs, no such research exists. In fact, Congress launched
bilingual education in 1968 as a civil-rights remedy without a stitch of
evidence that it helped ease students into U.S. culture. Today, too many of the
million non-English-speaking students are trapped in bilingual courses that not
only fail to teach them English, but deprive them of other needed academic
Frustrated by the lack of academic progress among Latino students, California
voters approved a massive restructuring of the state's bilingual programs in
1998; Arizona voters followed in 2000. As a result, the number of eligible
bilingual programs in the two states fell from 33% to 11%. Still unclear,
though, is whether the changes are improving students' education. And that
uncertainty could cause problems, as other states line up to follow California's
Generally, the ballot initiatives steer bilingual children into regular classes
after one year of intense English instruction, called "immersion." Supporters of
California's reforms say they can document rising math and reading scores among
children who spent a year in English immersion and moved on to regular classes.
But critics cite research supporting traditional bilingual education, and
statewide studies of the referendum's impact show mixed results.
Such uncertainties were avoidable. Medical experts use a reliable research
method: They test an unproved therapy on a study group and then compare the
results with a control group whose members don't receive the therapy.
Bilingual education and other important education methods haven't been subjected
to that kind of study because most educators assumed experiments couldn't be
conducted on children. They were proved wrong in 1998, when the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development released results from a
medical-style experiment on the best way to teach reading.
Now, the federal agency has stepped into the bilingual-research vacuum. Federal
health researchers have joined the U.S. Education Department in a five-year,
$32.5 million experiment focusing on 5,400 children in eight states. The goal is
to find the best methods for teaching Spanish-speaking children reading and
writing skills in English.
The information, due out in 2004, will aid a federal government now spending
$665 million a year on bilingual programs.
Too bad it's coming 36 years after the USA first embraced bilingual education —
and long after Massachusetts and Colorado voters must weigh unproved fixes for
their troubled programs.