SPANISH-speaking students who receive bilingual instruction advance at the same rate as other students and are not hindered in learning English, according to a long-awaited report from the US Department of Education. The $45-million study appears to affirm the current administration's policy on this fiercely debated issue.
``Based on this study, we can conclude that bilingual education benefits students,'' says Ted Sanders, acting secretary of education, ``and school administrators can choose the method best suited to their students, confident that if well-implemented it will reap positive results.''
The seven-year study tracked 2,000 Spanish-speaking elementary schoolers in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Jersey. It was conducted by Aguirre International in San Mateo, Calif.
The three main bilingual programs use different amounts of English and Spanish in the classroom:
Immersion programs instruct students in English, with Spanish used only for clarification. The goal is to move pupils into all-English classes by the end of first or second grade.
Early-exit programs provide initial instruction in Spanish and phase into English-only instruction by second grade.
Late-exit programs use Spanish about 40 percent of the time. Students often stay in these programs through sixth grade.
``This study was supposed to be the `Wild West, OK-Corral shootout' between the opponents of bilingual education and people who believe in bilingual education,'' says James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.
It ``clarifies some of the issues that have been hovering around bilingual education for the past 20 years,'' says Rita Esquivel, director of the Education Department's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority-Language Affairs.
But advocates of intensive English instruction criticize the study for not reporting students' achievement levels.
``You can have rates of growth that are the same and still have not reached the objective,'' says Ronald Saunders, executive director of U.S. ENGLISH, a group that favors a constitutional amendment declaring English the official language of the United States.
``The question is not whether students are making progress; the question is whether or not they are achieving what they need to succeed.
``When people gather data, when people analyze data, and they don't report it, my antennae start quivering,'' Mr. Saunders continues. ``I think [the Department of Education] ended up making a big effort to get something politically palatable that they could release.''
Plans for further investigation of the data are being considered, according to Ms. Esquivel. ``What we would like to do also is to find out how these same children do in the seventh or eighth grade - to see if there are any differences in the dropout rate,'' she says.
Mr. Lyons considers this study a resolution of the debate over bilingual education's value. ``In point of fact, the data seem to suggest that there are benefits in terms of English-language development by using a lot of the child's native language.''
The study also found that teachers in all three of the programs were not as effective as they could be. They provided passive learning environments in which teachers did most of the talking and did not encourage students to use language creatively.
``That's a phenomenon of the teaching profession across the nation,'' Esquivel says. What the finding implies, she says, is that attention should be focused on better training for bilingual-education teachers.
``I hope that now we can engage ourselves in positive debate as to what is going to be best for children to learn English,'' Esquivel says.