Damn the Political Dynamite, Full Speed Ahead on Bilingual Research

The National Research Council (NRC) has unveiled a new set of research priorities for educating children with limited English proficiency.

A pre-publication copy of the NRC’s 484-page report was released amid hopes that the new proposals may surmount the fray of political debate that has been hampering bilingual learning research for decades. And the report comes with still stronger hopes that the new proposals will encourage greater volumes of research in this area.

The new research priorities may be “one way to defuse the political dynamite that can exist in this issue,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University experimental psychologist who chaired the 11-member panel that developed the report for the NRC and the Institute of Medicine.

“It has taken bilingual education 20 years to get to the point where we can say let’s not just ask the question of which is better-English-only or bilingual instruction,” said Hakuta, pointing to this question as the single most divisive issue in the debate. Instead, he said, “Let’s focus on educational outcomes as our objective for learning–on how to make high-achieving students out of English-language learners.”

“In recent years, studies quickly have become politicized by advocacy groups selectively promoting research findings to support their positions,” Hakuta said. “As a result, important areas are ignored, such has how to enable these students to meet rigorous academic standards. Rather than choosing a one-size- fits-all program, the key issue should be to identify those components, backed by solid research findings, that will work in a specific community,” Hakuta said.


The political debate is probably even more heated in the case of Ebonies, which his committee’s report does not deal with, Hakuta said, as the NRC study is concerned specifically with the 2.3 million children in American schools whose first language is clearly identified as not based in English. But there are parallel issues with Ebonics, such as the recognition that learning standard English does not happen in a vacuum, but builds on the previous base, whether that base is a language other than English or a nonstandard variety of English, Hakuta explained.

The NRC report is aimed at the 2.3 million children in US schools from kindergarten to 12th grade who have English as their second language. They constitute about five percent of the school population nationwide but are a majority in some schools in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois. About 75 percent speak Spanish as their primary language. Programs to teach them and prepare them for conventional classrooms vary widely across the country and even from community to community, the report emphasizes.

Drop-out Rate

A distressing picture emerges from available data on 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 1989, more than 40 percent of students over age 16 who reported difficulty with English eventually dropped out of high school.

The NRC report calls for a model for research and development grounded in knowledge about the linguistic, social, and cognitive development of these children. The model could be tested in settings that are carefully selected to take into account the particular characteristics of the students and their classrooms. When successful, the model could be tested at other sites before serving as the base for several educational programs designed to suit the needs of different types of students. The report identified research priorities in these 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 professional development for teachers who serve language-minority student populations.

• Methods through which preschool children develop English- and native-language proficiency.

• Measures of accountability and strategies for including English-language learners equitably in educational assessments.

Research Opportunities

Broader opportunities for investigator initiated research will open up if the NRC recommendations filter their way through to government and private funding agencies, predicted David Kenny of the University of Connecticut-Storrs, a member of the NRC panel. ‘There has been very little investigator research in this field in the past,” Kenny said. Most has been contract-based “and a large proportion goes to university centers,” Kenny said.

Basic research areas have challenging roles to fulfill, Kenny said, in looking at the assumptions that much of the current research makes about the role of language in learning. “You can’t really test these assumptions very well where people now only one language, because the results are conditioned, really,” he said. “Some things that are true of English speakers may not be true of people speaking other languages or learning a second language.”

For the same reason, basic research in cognition and language might benefit and become better informed by studying language-minority children, said Kenny, whose expertise is in research design and evaluation.

Kenny said the research recommended by the panel in some areas could be done quickly with very little investment, while in other areas the work would carry well into the next century. “We focused on so many different research areas and made so many different recommendations that the deadlines would be different for each one,” he said.

Richard Duran of the University of California-Santa Barbara, another NRC panel member, says that if the NRC report receives the attention it should “there will be a great range of opportunities for researchers and many entry points for them. From the perspective of psycholinguists, for example, there should be opportunities for studies of information processes, problem solving and social development.

“Just about any area we look at is pertinent to the concerns of the development of language-minority children,” said Duran, an APS member. “But especially promising, in my view, are the emerging cognitive science areas that examine learning and development in social contexts. The so-called social constructivist approaches seem particularly appropriate. This ties in with the expanding horizons of what psychology is about and the different ways of understanding human cognitive and social functioning and cultural functioning,” Duran said.

Duran sees the present time as opportune for research because psychology’s newer approaches “are proving extremely beneficial in analyzing the potential challenges and problems that bilingual children face in learning in everyday academic situations.” Duran says “Psychologists, social linguists, anthropologists, and educational researchers are very actively exploring the development of academic skills of bilingual children in the children’s first and second languages. The researchers are finding ways of accelerating that development.

“In the past, the emphasis was on what was happening between the ears of the individuals as they developed, focusing on how external stimulation and responding could be explained by this mediation. What was not tackled until more recently was how human perception and interpretation of activity and use of cognitive strategies regulates many forms of participation in activities. That had been ignored previously.”

The NRC study was funded by the US Department of Education, the Spencer Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

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