NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
COMMISSION ON BEHAVIORAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCES AND EDUCATION
INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE
BOARD ON CHILDREN, YOUTH, AND FAMILIES
2101 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20418
COMMITTEE ON DEVELOPING A RESEARCH AGENDA
ON THE EDUCATION OF LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENT
AND BILINGUAL STUDENTS
Ms. Rosalie Porter
Post Office Box 2428
Amherst, MA 01004
June 13, 1997
We are writing in reference to READ Institute's Research and Policy Brief that reviews the findings of the NRC report entitled Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda. While we appreciate the attention that your organization has given to the report, we are concerned because the review does not accurately represent the report's findings. Furthermore, we disagree with the conclusions you draw regarding the value of research on the education of language minority children.
In terms of the report's findings, we note the following discrepancies between your conclusions and those made in the NRC report:
READ concludes that there is no evidence yet that native language teaching is helping or hurting limited English proficient students.
On the contrary, the NRC report concludes there is evidence that such teaching is helpful: " ... based primarily on the Willig (1985) meta-analysis as well as a previous NRC panel review of two large-scale evaluations, there are positive relationships that are consistent with empirical results from other studies that support the theory underlying native language instruction" (page 147).
READ concludes that teaching children to read in English first, and not in the native language, does not have negative consequences.
The NRC report does not come to this conclusion; rather, it gives a more balanced perspective and concludes "what we know about early literacy instruction suggests it is more likely than not to be successful under a wide variety of circumstances, but is nonetheless impacted by a long list of risk factors: including lack of explicit instruction in the local orthography, absence of the sort of background knowledge and skills acquired in highly literate environments, and unavailability of semantic support for decoding that comes from familiarity with words one reads. Exposure to any of these and other risk factors may have no impact on literacy achievement, though the coincidence of several may ensure a higher rate of failure. The high literacy achievement of Spanish-speaking children in English-medium Success for All schools (Slavin and Yampolsky, 1992) that feature carefully designed direct literacy instruction suggest that even children from low-literacy homes can learn to read in a second language if the risk associated with poor instruction is eliminated" (p. 60).
READ concludes that emphasizing ethnic differences in the classroom is counterproductive — it does not lead to better self-esteem for language minority children.
The NRC report does not reach a negative conclusion about the effects of emphasizing cultural differences; it does focus on the importance of creating a superordinate group that values the attributes of the subgroups composing it. To reduce negative intergroup conflict, "a superordinate group with which students from different cultural and language groups can become identified should be constructed. In a classroom characterized by language diversity, group salience is likely to be reduced to the extent that all students become competent in the same languages" (p. 94).
READ concludes there is no research support for the idea that teachers who are themselves members of minority groups are more effective than others who work with children from those same groups.
The NRC report does not reach a negative conclusion: rather, it notes that no studies have been conducted to examine the effects of matching teachers and students on cultural characteristics, and it says that such research should be supported (p. 267).
READ concludes that the U.S. Department of Education's management of bilingual education has been a total failure, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars; using the research agenda for political purposes to justify a program that has not proven its worth; and not making its research available to the educators who could use it to improve their school programs.
The NRC report does not conclude that the management of bilingual education has been a total failure, although it suggests many avenues for its improvement. The report makes clear that a great deal has been learned from the research that has been conducted on English language learners or a report of this magnitude would not have been possible. The committee's position is that, based on the substantial amount that is now known, researchers and practitioners are poised to take advantage of lessons learned to embark on a new generation of research that will further the knowledge base and lead to better schooling for language minority children.
The READ report states that there is no sane reason to spend more years searching for a model teaching program to play around with, while another generation of language minority students is damaged by inferior schooling. And there is certainly no reason to put any future research in the hands of OBEMLA [the federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs].
The NRC report agrees it is time to trust what we do know about teaching poor children. But we also firmly believe in the importance of education reform that is grounded in solid research and evaluation. The education of language minority children involves complex issues that require significant and continuous investments in research, development, evaluation and dissemination. The NRC report also acknowledges problems with the Department of Education's past management of research, and makes concrete recommendations for improvements in the research infrastructure.
We hope that you will consider our comments when issuing future statements about the NRC report.
Thanks to Diane August and Kenji Hakuta for permission to reprint this letter.