Bilingual report gets shelved after 3 years

By Greg Toppo,

The Bush administration's top education researcher says politics played no part in a decision not to publish a government-funded study on bilingual education. Critics last week complained that the decision was politically motivated.

But Russ Whitehurst, director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, criticized the report's research and writing, not its content.

Reviewers looked at drafts twice over the past year and "just thought it was bad," he says. "There didn't seem to be a minimal standard for determining the quality or worth of a study once it made it into review. The reviews were just quite negative."

The Education Department in 2002 appointed the National Literacy Panel, a non-partisan research group, to conduct a two-year study of existing research on bilingual education. More than three years later, the panel's report is still pending.

The panel's chairman, Timothy Shanahan of the University of Illinois-Chicago, last week said the Education Department won't publish its findings, which include studies suggesting that non-English-speaking students learn better when taught in both English and their native language. This approach is used by most schools but is criticized by some conservatives.

Shanahan acknowledges the criticisms but says most of the concerns were "correctible." He and other panelists say they intend to have the study published privately. "It's gone through substantial revision as the result of both of those reviews."

Whitehurst says he doesn't even know where the Bush administration stands on bilingual education. While No Child Left Behind requires schools to test immigrant children in English after three years, schools may continue testing individual students in their native language.

As part of NCLB, the federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs in 2002 underwent a name change, becoming the Office of English Language Acquisition.

But Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey says questions of how to teach immigrant students "are state and local issues," not the purview of the federal government.

Over the past few years, a small group of conservative activists nationwide, led by software entrepreneur Ron Unz, has led a series of successful ballot measures to dismantle bilingual programs in California, Arizona and Massachusetts, in favor of English-only instruction.

Unz says he got no help from the Bush administration. "I haven't heard a word from them," he says.

Unz cites "quite extraordinary" gains in reading and language scores from 1998 to 2002 for immigrant children in California in English-only classes.

Bilingual advocates say most research in the field supports bilingual education, but Unz says most of the research "is complete garbage."