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Research Controversy

Issues in U.S. Language Policy

Controversy over the
National Research Council Report:
Does Bilingual Education Really "Work"?

Has research proved the effectiveness of bilingual education in teaching limited-English-proficient (LEP) students? Conversely, has it shown that native-language instruction diverts children from learning English? Or does the scientific evidence remain inconclusive? As the news media constantly remind us and the politicians continue to complain, "the experts are divided."

But are they really so divided? Do researchers remain seriously at odds over the central question for educators, parents, and policymakers: Are LEP students likely to benefit from bilingual instruction?

It came as a revelation to me, when starting to cover this beat for Education Week in 1985, that the issue was not at all controversial among researchers in applied linguistics – that is, among experts in both language and education. Of course, there were a few academic skeptics, largely from fields like sociology and political science. And there were powerful political opponents, such as then-Secretary of Education William Bennett, not to mention a growing corps of English-only militants.

Yet it was well nigh impossible to find an authority in second-language acquisition who argued that bilingual instruction was, in itself, ineffective – much less a diversion from English. No one claimed it was a panacea. Or that it would work in every school with every student from every background. Simply that it was a valid and promising approach – if not the only approach – to overcoming the language barriers that long denied LEP children an equal chance to learn.

In theory, the experts expressed no doubt that bilingual education was a major improvement over "sink-or-swim." In practice, virtually all agreed that the design and quality of bilingual programs varied substantially. Moreover, they viewed the language of instruction as only one variable among many in determining failure or success for LEP students.

A 1997 study by the National Research Council, Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda, continues in this tradition. Produced by a 12-member expert panel, the 487-page report found considerable evidence for the merits of bilingual approaches, while also noting some English-only program successes. At the same time, it criticized the politicization of research findings by advocates on both sides as an obstacle to progress in school reform. "As a result," says the panel's chairman, Kenji Hakuta,

    "important areas are ignored, such as how to enable these students to meet rigorous academic standards. Rather than choosing a one-size-fits-all program, the key issue should be identifying those components, backed by solid research findings, that will work in a specific community."

Undaunted by this complaint, an anti-bilingual advocacy group – the so-called Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development (READ) – quickly issued a Research and Policy Brief. It congratulated the NRC panel for conceding, among other things, that there is "no evidence" that bilingual education works.

READ's political "spin" on the NRC report has been circulated to school boards and educational administrators throughout the country. John Silber, chairman of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, sent it at taxpayer's expense to every principal in his state. It is also being used extensively in California to promote a statewide anti-bilingual initiative for the June 1998 ballot.

Kenji Hakuta has responded in a memorandum criticizing READ's attempt to exploit the NRC report for partisan purposes. In addition, on behalf of the NRC's panel, Hakuta and study director Diane August have written a point-by-point rebuttal of READ's distortions. These documents are reproduced here, with permission of the authors, in the interest of wider distribution.

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