Date: Jan. 14, 1997
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Associate
Becky Habel, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <>


Political Debate Interferes with Research on
Educating Children with Limited English Proficiency

WASHINGTON -- Political debates over how children with limited English skills should be taught are hampering research and evaluation of educational programs established to meet the needs of these children, says a new report* from a committee of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

Much research has been used in trying to determine which type of instruction is better -- English-only or bilingual. However, there is little value in using research for this purpose, the committee said. Instead of attempting to single out one method for all students, research should focus on identifying a variety of educational approaches that work for children in their communities, based on specific local needs and available resources.

"In recent years, studies quickly have become politicized by advocacy groups selectively promoting research findings to support their positions," said Kenji Hakuta, committee chair and professor of education at Stanford University. "As a result, 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."

Evaluations have proved inconclusive about which teaching approaches work best. The committee concurred with a 1992 Research Council study which found that the benefits of some native- language instruction are evident, especially for children in kindergarten through second grade. However, there also are studies that show benefits from English-only instruction. Because many current studies are attempting to compare different types of programs that vary widely in such areas as funding, classroom setting, student background, and subject matter, the studies are unlikely to settle the debate over which type of instruction is best, the committee said.

Advocates on many sides of the issue have been able to use research to uphold their arguments because there are study results that support a wide range of positions. These debates confuse policy-makers and muddle research agendas, the committee said. Recent evaluations of teaching programs in California and New York City were heralded by advocates as conclusive, yet neither can justify broad generalizations. For example, the New York project -- an evaluation of programs for English-language learners -- did not account for other factors, such as socioeconomic status, that may influence children in these programs.

Educational Outlook
For almost three decades, students have been eligible by federal law for special educational services if their English skills are too limited for them to participate effectively in an English-only environment. Of 45 million children currently enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, 2.3 million cannot fully understand or fluently speak English. About half of these students entered school in the last decade; almost 70 percent live in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois, and about three-quarters of them speak Spanish as their primary language.

Available statistics provide a distressing picture of the educational status of these children, the report says. Many are from poor families and attend schools that have limited resources. They tend to get lower grades than their classmates, and score lower on standard reading and math tests. In addition, in 1989 more than 40 percent of students over age 16 who reported difficulty with English eventually dropped out of high school.

Programs to teach English to these students and prepare them for conventional classrooms vary considerably across the country and even from community to community. Some students are taught English language skills in classes separate from their regular academic instruction. They may be taught by an instructor using English that is modified to their level of understanding, or taught in a bilingual setting, with an instructor using both English and the students' native language.

An Informed Model
The committee called for a model for research and development that would be grounded in knowledge about the linguistic, social, and cognitive development of children. The model could be tested in carefully selected settings based on the characteristics of students and their schools. Once success has been demonstrated and documented, these elements could be tested at other sites. Based on this model, several educational programs could be designed for the needs of different types of students. The report identifies research priorities in the following areas:
> the ways in which English-language learners achieve academic goals, interact with native English-speaking students and teachers, and develop literacy;
> the most effective preparation and professional development for teachers, many of whom have not had specialized instruction for teaching English;
> methods through which preschool children develop English- and native-language proficiency; and
> measures of accountability and strategies for including English-language learners equitably in educational assessments.

The committee also identified numerous deficiencies in how federal and state agencies sponsor and coordinate research. An advisory group within the U.S. Department of Education should be created to oversee research efforts, the report says. The group also should encourage and monitor other federal agencies' research in this area.

The Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Spencer Foundation, the Carnegie Corp. of New York, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. The Institute of Medicine is a private, non-profit organization that provides health policy advice under the same charter. A committee roster follows.

*Pre-publication copies of Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $55.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain pre-publication copies from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).