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Report urges overhaul of education for limited-English children

STANFORD -- The nation must overhaul its educational system to boost academic opportunities for immigrants and language minorities, according to a new Stanford University report that calls limited-English children "a unique but largely untapped national resource."

The report calls for programs that would give language-minority children the same academic challenges that current education reform movements propose for native English speakers. It claims that fragmented services and outdated notions about bilingualism have consigned limited-English proficient (LEP) students to substandard education with reduced expectations for success.

The report contests the long-standing myth of bilingualism as an educational "handicap." It further urges a new emphasis on encouraging all children to become proficient in two or more languages: "Bilingualism enhances cognitive and social growth, competitiveness in a global marketplace, national security, and understanding of diverse peoples and cultures."

Currently, according to the report, "an excessive amount of energy is absorbed by the old debate on the language of instruction, at the expense of paying serious attention to content matter as well as to the development of bilingualism."

The new report, A Blueprint for the Second Generation, was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to make recommendations on several major pieces of federal education legislation pending before Congress. The report is timed to meet Congress' reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which expires this year.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, on leave as dean of the Stanford School of Education, called it "a thoughtful, important report on a critical issue."

"It will be very useful as Congress and the administration work toward the reauthorization of ESEA."

The Stanford Working Group issuing the report includes a broad cross-section of advocates for LEP students and key players in national education reform movements; it is chaired by Education Professor Kenji Hakuta.

The report is the first to target comprehensive policy recommendations for federal policymakers and a wider public, rather than education specialists. It attempts to redress a national situation where "the improvement of education for LEP students, by and large, has existed outside the mainstream of education reform movements."

"This report links federal bilingual policy to broader federal policies for improving the education of disadvantaged children in new and novel ways," said Education Professor Michael Kirst, a former Washington policymaker. "And it's written in a way very easy for people who are not specialists in language policy to understand and act upon."

"We expect to take the recommendations very seriously - we will try and incorporate as many of them as we can," said Suzanne Ramos, Chief Education Counsel for the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)

"We're very excited that the reauthorization is occurring during an administration committed to expanding bilingual education and increasing opportunities for LEP students," Ramos said. "We will be working closely with the administration."

Fixation on teaching English

According to the report, educational opportunities for the approximately 3.3 million limited-English proficient (LEP) students are "not good."

"Large numbers of LEP students are languishing in school programs with low academic expectations and lack of attention to higher order thinking skills," the report states.

"Many language-minority students are behind their peers in content areas at a time when performance standards are being raised throughout the nation.

"As language-minority children make up a growing portion of our workforce, it is imperative that they be provided an equal opportunity" for developing higher order thinking skills.

The report noted, "A fixation on teaching English as quickly as possible detracts from instruction in other subject areas. And most bilingual programs do not offer students the opportunity to fully develop their capacity in two languages at a time when the nation critically needs a multilingual workforce."

The report blames the situation on a national bias that persistently "views LEP students' languages and cultures as obstacles to achievement - as academic deficits - rather than as potential strengths to build upon."

It described "two damaging assumptions" underlying state and federal policies: 1) that language-minority students, who are often economically disadvantaged, are not capable of learning to high standards, and 2) that instruction in their native language distracts these children from learning English.

"This mindset permeates legislation, policy, planning and practice in spite of strong evidence from educational research and practice that its assumptions are faulty."

"As language-minority children make up a growing portion of our workforce, it is imperative that they be provided an equal opportunity" for developing higher-order thinking skills.

The report charged that the United States remains an "underdeveloped country" when it comes to language skills and an international perspective.

Citing an estimate that only 3 percent of high school graduates and only 5 percent of college graduates become proficient in a second language - and that many of those come from bilingual homes - the report noted, by contrast, that "virtually all our trading partners require all of their graduates to attain proficiency in two, three, or more languages."

New policy recommendations

The report applauded recent trends in education reform. According to the report, reorienting American schools away from the old assumptions - that minority children can learn only basic skills and that bilingualism is a handicap to be overcome - will require a comprehensive approach rather than a patchwork of special projects.

All efforts must be coordinated as part of an overall vision - developed through a broad-based participatory process - that focuses on a challenging curriculum for all students.

Among the report's overarching recommendations to the federal government are:

  • Support the development of high content and performance standards for LEP students that are the same as those established for all other students.
  • Develop ways to assess student performance that are appropriate for LEP students.
  • Make special efforts to ensure enough teachers are well prepared to educate LEP students.

The report further focused on two federal ESEA programs from the 1960s that have had a large impact on language-minority children: Chapter 1 and Title VII. Chapter 1 distributes funding through state education agencies to provide programs for students in relatively poor schools, including LEP students. Title VII grants are awarded to selected local education agencies to develop bilingual and other specialized programs for LEP students. The report supported findings of recent reviews of Chapter 1 programs that found they overemphasize remediation in basic skills rather than attempt to focus on higher-order thinking skills. It also found their services fragmented, with Chapter 1 programs often isolated from the rest of the school. Chapter 1 has failed "to target funds to sufficiently impact the conditions in high poverty schools and districts."

The report concluded that "the services provided through Chapter 1 are characterized by low standards and a philosophy of remediation that are in need of serious overhaul" for all students. The programs for LEP students in particular have failed to address the students' needs, said the report.

Among the more specific recommendations for LEP students in transforming Chapter 1 are:

  • Ensure that LEP and other students receive challenging curriculum and instruction in Chapter 1 programs.
  • Increase LEP students' access to Chapter 1 services through changes in funding formulas and clarification of eligibility provisions.
  • Ensure that LEP students in Chapter 1 are provided appropriate instruction and materials that are adapted to their special needs.
  • Develop activities to inform and involve parents who are also limited English proficient.

Although Title VII bilingual education programs affect far fewer language-minority children, the programs are better adapted to the specific needs of LEP students. Nevertheless, said the report, Title VII has yet to fulfill its potential. It has been hampered by political pressures to stress acquiring English as the sole goal of many of its programs.

Among the reports recommendations to re-tool Title VII are:

  • Strengthen the federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA) that administers Title VII programs.
  • Develop states' capacity to learn from the experiences of bilingual education programs and to disseminate successful programs.
  • Emphasize programs that promote full bilingual development.
  • Bolster efforts to address the continuing shortage and often poor preparation of educators who serve LEP students.

The report concluded:

"Equity in resources is necessary, if not wholly sufficient, to ensure that all children benefit from school reform in the 1990s. Equally important, LEP children must be considered at every level of school reform - not as afterthoughts or 'generic' learners, but as valued students who happen to speak languages other than English.

"These students bear the gift of bilingualism which the federal government should utilize to nurture an international perspective in the next generation of Americans."


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