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Stanford expert says policy-makers need to get beyond language in assessing bilingualism

Policy-makers need to get beyond language issues as they judge bilingual programs and focus on the bigger problems of improving schools and setting academic standards, education Professor Kenji Hakuta said during a recent luncheon talk at the School of Education.

Hakuta, who serves as chairman of the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board at the U.S. Department of Education, presented his thoughts on bilingual education at a forum sponsored by the Friends of the Stanford University School of Education. Hakuta deplored what he described as the "horse-race" nature of studies contrasting bilingual education with English immersion.

"A lot of this is a resource and poverty issue, and language is a mask for that," he said.

Research has shown that bilingual education for "limited-English-proficient" (L.E.P.) students works slightly better than alternative approaches, but that in most cases there are significant factors beyond language that affect their schooling, he added.

In a position paper he prepared for members of Congress, Hakuta expanded on this theme. "The discourse about the education of language minority students needs to move from an understanding of language to the development of academic content and the improvement of schools," he wrote.

It takes two or more years for a student to develop English proficiency, Hakuta said. And while he believes bilingual education works better than the alternative, it "won't fix everything," he wrote. "Policy-makers can take these findings and make a clear declaration: We know enough about language. So let's move on with dissemination of these facts and begin addressing the bigger problem of academic standards and school improvement."

Hakuta traced the history of bilingual education in California leading up to the recent passage of Proposition 227, which requires that students be taught in English in most cases. While "radical," Proposition 227 "got much of its impetus from the charge that the system was broken," Hakuta said a charge that had some merit.

Contributing to bilingual education's problems has been the way its effectiveness is measured, he wrote in the position paper.

"L.E.P. students are often assessed for their English proficiency, but not for content knowledge," he wrote. "Currently, most L.E.P. students are excluded from local, state and national assessment and accountability systems."

In addition, bilingual teacher training and professional development has been a critical problem, Hakuta said.

"Current knowledge about the effectiveness of strategies for teacher education and the assessment of teacher knowledge and skills is very limited. Lawmakers should demand a systematic inquiry into ways to understand, support and coordinate all of these efforts," he wrote.

Finally, the issue of social class colors the debate on bilingual education, he said.

"Research shows that bilingualism, in the sense of a strong command of two or more languages, is a good thing regardless of whether you are a first-generation or seventh-generation immigrant. But we hold split standards that lead us to value bilingualism for people of privileged backgrounds, but not for people who are recent immigrants."

Hakuta said there was one sign of hope in the recent emergence of a few "two-way" bilingual programs where, for example, native English- and native Spanish-speaking students are grouped together to learn each other's language.

Hakuta is co-author of In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second-Language Acquisition, and author of The Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism.



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