Original URL: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2002-10-28-edit_x.htm

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 educators' policies.

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 nation's 4.4
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 skills, too.

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 children in
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 example.

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.


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