Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What Do We Know About Schooling Language-Minority Children?



February 3, 1997

Surprisingly little, after 30 years of federally funded bilingual programs and more than 25 years of state and court mandates affecting millions of children, 73 percent of them Hispanic. This is what we learn from a comprehensive and painfully honest study carried out by Kenji Hakuta and Diane August for the National Research Council (NRC) and released with some fanfare on January 23.

Hakuta and August report that we know a fair amount from research about how children acquire a second language, but not much about whether language-minority children are doing so or how to make them successful in their academic subjects. What in the world, we want to ask, have the researchers and evaluators and those providing nearly $100 million in research funds been up to? Two generations of children have passed through our schools in three decades, many of them without acquiring the skills necessary to participate successfully as workers and as citizens.

The study correctly notes that federal and state policies supporting bilingual education were adopted in a "leap of faith," and that "basic research did not help inform practice." "With regard to reading instruction in a second language, there is remarkably little directly relevant research," the authors admit. How should instruction be sequenced? "At this point, we know next to nothing about these questions." Even with respect to the question that has dominated the research, "We do not yet know whether there will be long-term advantages or disadvantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language versus English, given a very high-quality program of known effectiveness in both cases."

Education research commonly comes to uncertain conclusions, which calls for further research. But policymakers and those on the firing line in schools do not have the luxury of waiting until all the evidence is in. Judging by results, language-minority children have been deplorably educated (though with some notable exceptions that should be replicated vigorously), and policy and practice must move ahead with what we already know.

And we know quite a lot, the report shows, about particular practices that make a difference for most language-minority children. Despite thirty years of obsession with language as the primary issue, it turns out that the real issue is to teach academic subjects effectively. Language-minority children do well in schools in which other children are also doing well. It seems to be valuable to educate them together as much as possible with children whose home language is English, while using some Spanish (for example) to support instruction and encourage their involvement in classroom activities. My research on how 12 Western democracies educate immigrant children shows that keeping language-minority children separate, as Americans tend to do, is a mistake.

This is why it would also be a mistake to follow the report's recommendation that the federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA) should play the leading role in directing further research in this area. That would be to perpetuate the political domination of research in this field. OBEMLA should concentrate on encouraging states and school systems to implement instruction grounded in basic knowledge "about the linguistic, cognitive, and social development of language-minority children." Research and evaluation aimed at developing this basic knowledge should be part of the overall study of effective teaching and learning.

Let's get on with what we already know and not narrow research in a way that reinforces the segregation of language-minority students in programs with low academic expectations.

—Charles Glenn, Jr., Professor of Education
   Boston University

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”